Black '47 brings the western style out of Ireland
Black ’47 is like no western I’ve ever seen before. Sure it’s got morally ambiguous characters, a flinty-eyed antihero, horses, lots of guns and blood and it is set in the west.But this time it isn’t on the western plains of the good ole US of A, instead, we find our “cowboys and Indians” duking it out in the west of Ireland.
Black ’47 is like no western I’ve ever seen before. Sure it’s got morally ambiguous characters, a flinty-eyed antihero, horses, lots of guns and blood and it is set in the west.
But this time it isn’t on the western plains of the good ole US of A, instead, we find our “cowboys and Indians” duking it out in the west of Ireland.
And in this instance it’s the British who are playing the role of invaders, stealing from, and starving the Irish into subjugation, the ’47 part of the title a reference to the worst year in the Great Famine, which cost Ireland about one quarter of its population.
The film has been aptly described by one journo as an Irish revenge Western with more rain and less Comanche, and its spot in Rev 2019 comes after the film has broken box office records in Ireland.
The plot sees the taciturn Feeney (Aussie James Frecheville) abandon his post as a ranger for the British Army in Afghanistan, and return to a country ravaged and starving, with many of his own family among the dead.
Outraged at the injustices he sees perpetrated by rent collectors, law enforcement, and English landowners, he seeks vengeance, pursued by former comrade Hannah (Hugo Weaving) who now has a job assisting the local constabulary.
Very early on film director Lance Daly brings home the pitifulness of life in Ireland at this time. He depicts gaunt, poorly clothed commonfolk witnessing the burial of loved ones. So short on materials are the Irish that a “trap door” is fitted to the bottom of a coffin so the dead are merely dropped into a pit below so the next person can be “buried” using the same coffin.
In stark contrast the English forces are well fed and groomed, their red uniforms standing like beacons against the barren wasteland of the famine and an oncoming winter, a technique enhanced by heavily desaturating colour.
The English also take turns in denigrating the locals with their words. When discussing potatoes and the blight which has destroyed this staple crop, one of the bigoted soldiers offers the insight that spuds are “food for the contended slave not the hardy and the brave.”
As Fenny continues his one man Rambo-like war on the English there is enough breathing space allowed for the viewer to take in the wrongs done by the English who justify their actions variously, inciting religion, the court and king – universal pretexts for many a war.
The action scenes are first rate, often invoking 70s westerns with lots of gritty wide shots when shotgun blasts catch the viewer and victim off guard. I also liked Feeny’s keen sense of the poetic, whereby he displays some of his kills in a way to send a message to the loved ones of those he has killed and those coming after him.
Oddly enough, Hannah, who we first see as a cold blooded murderer, emerges as the story’s moral compass. He is the only character perhaps with a foot in each camp so watching him wrestle with the choices he makes and seeing how the story plays out for him gives a bit more oomph to what might otherwise have passed for a formulaic revenge film.
Rounding out a strong cast are Freddie Fox who plays young officer Pope and Irish acting mainstay Stephen Rea who plays the opportunistic native Conneely, a storyteller who wishes to chronicle the hunt for Feeney.
The writing, direction and acting all stack up really well in this tale of bloody retribution and its success abroad may well be replicated if given a wider release in Australia.