BLACK ‘47. Starring: Hugo Weaving, James Frecheville, Stephen Rea, Freddie Fox, Barry Keoghan, and Jim Broadbent. Also starring, Sarah Greene. Directed by Lance Daly. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong themes and violence). 100 min.
This drama from Ireland and Luxembourg is based on the Irish short film, “An (Irish) Ranger” written and directed by P J Dillon and Pierce Ryan, who helped co-write the screenplay for this movie. The film is set in Ireland during the period of the Great Famine (1845-1852). The year of 1847 is referred to as “Black ‘47”, because 1847 is said to be the worst year of the famine. The film is a grim tale of war events and human conflict during a terrible period of Irish history. It was a period of massive and large-scale starvation, poverty, and suffering.
The story focuses on Inspector Hannah (Hugo Weaving) who works as an investigator for the Royal Irish Constabulary. He fought for the British Army abroad, but comes back to Ireland to be with his family. On returning, he is shocked by the famine’s effect on the country of Ireland, and its people.
While interrogating a young member of a protest movement, Hannah accidentally kills him after losing his temper at the prisoner’s refusal to answer his questions. Facing death for strangling his prisoner, Hannah is forced to assist in the hunt for a renegade friend, Martin Feeney (James Frecheville) who served with him in the Afghan War, and who once saved his life. Feeney is an Irish deserter bent on avenging the death of his family, and is the film’s figure of avenging justice. Feeney flees so as to pursue the people he blames for the deaths of his family in a country racked by the ravages of famine. After returning to Ireland, Feeney learns that his mother had died from starvation and fever, his brother had been hanged, as the rest of his family tried to live among ruined crops in squalor and misery.
Under “a stay of execution”, Hannah is forced to hunt Feeney down. He teams up with an arrogant British Officer, Pope (Freddie Fox), who is aided by a young private (Barry Keoghan), and a local man (Stephen Rea) whose chief value is that he knows the Irish Language well. The group locates Feeney, but Feeney escapes, returning to save Hannah from the firing squad. In the ensuing fight, Feeney is wounded, and Hannah tries to get him to safety, but Feeney is then shot fatally. While dying, Feeney implores Hannah not to continue the fight, but to escape to America as he once intended to do. The film ends with Hannah standing at a fork in a road, contemplating whether he should join a group of of people on their way to another land, mindful of his friend’s last words. The viewer is left to decide what choice Hannah will make.
The plot of the film revolves centrally around the motive of revenge. The film is visually compelling and the movie is well produced, and the camera relentlessly probes the barren nature of Ireland’s landscape, and the tragedy of its people. The direction by Lance Daly is fiercely controlled. He uses sepia, coloured toning, and he powerfully projects the mood of the film, which is reinforced by a plaintive musical soundtrack. The acting of the players in this drama is impressive, especially the acting of Hugo Weaving, who comes to question his own motives as well as the motives of his country. But the movie, from the opening frame to the concluding one, is almost unbearably grim.
The film is caught between an historical piece of cinema and a revenge thriller. It is tough, uncompromising and immensely harrowing, and one that refuses to pull back from the sadness of the story it wants to tell. As a revenge movie, death and destruction lie in wait everywhere. It doesn’t inform the viewer a great deal about the politics surrounding “1847”, so much as it stresses the victimisation of the Irish, who are treated appallingly for speaking their language, and believing in their religion. It additionally dramatises the obscenity of rich landowners, like Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent). who hoarded grain while people around them died from starvation.
Injustice is not the chief motivating force behind this film. It is the revenge motive that sustains its power, and this makes the movie not as historically significant as it might otherwise have been.
Peter W Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released December 13th., 2018