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Irish film-maker Lance Daly has taken on the great famine of the 19th century, and its worst year, the “Black ’47”, drawing from it an intestine-snappingly brutal movie that you could call revenge horror, or revenge western. Revenge something, anyway. And this is probably the generic result of seeing the famine not as a sorrowful tragedy, but as a matter of criminal constitutional negligence, with colonial rulers creating a serf class of disenfranchised tenant farmers, whose product was exported and who were made dependent for subsistence on a single, blight-vulnerable strain of potato.
Australian actor James Frecheville (who made his 2010 breakthrough in David Michôd’s Melbourne mob thriller Animal Kingdom) gives a coldly terrifying performance as Feeney, an Irishman who deserts from the British army and returns to his homeland to discover the truth about how his family have been tyrannised and allowed to die in squalor and misery. Repurposing his army training, Feeney goes on a rampaging mission of revenge-banditry against the landlords and their collaborator middlemen, in the process becoming a kind of implacable Fury, a Ned Kelly figure of insurgent justice.
On his trail is a once disgraced English soldier-turned-policeman, played by Hugo Weaving, together with a drawlingly arrogant officer, Pope (Freddie Fox), and a kind of tracker-guide named Conneely, played by Stephen Rea. And all the while, Feeney comes closer to his ultimate target – the landowner himself, Lord Kilmichael, played by Jim Broadbent – fictional, but presumably inspired by Ireland’s most hated absentee landlord, the Earl of Lucan, whose descendant was to become notorious in London a century later for other reasons.
Black 47 is a viscerally tough and uncompromisingly violent picture, something like an exploitation shocker at times, though with real insights. The west of Ireland, where the movie is set, is a place where Irish was the predominant language. Crucially, Broadbent’s Lord Kilmichael is shown irritably dismissing this as “aboriginal” gibberish and demanding English be spoken, thus typifying Britain’s dismal refusal to see Irish as a European language and its culture equivalent to, say, French or Spanish – not to mention bigotry on the subject of Native American or Indigenous Australian cultures. Tellingly, he says he longs for the day when a Celtic Irishman is as rare in Ireland as a “Red Indian in Manhattan”.
It is a harrowingly effective film, though flawed by the actions of Weaving’s officer being unconvincingly motivated at the end, and perhaps born of an emollient screenwriting need to split the difference between the Irish avenger-hero and his enemies. A gripping piece of storytelling, all the same.
Source: The Guardian
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