Director Lance Daly’s 2018 release, Black ’47 is a western-tinged revenge tale set amongst the backdrop of the Great Irish Famine (An Gorta Mór). It’s a gritty tale, which uses the darkest point in Irish history as a stepping-off point and Daly manages to create a bleak and atmospheric film which captivates and intrigues. In the last half-century we have have seen the western genre deliver a revisionist take on the Native American people and Black ’47 affords the same to the Irish people through their suffering under British rule. It’s a clever tool for Daly (and fellow writers PJ Dillon, Pierce Ryan and Eugene O’Brien) although those looking for a film which fully details the ravages of the Famine will be slightly disappointed.
James Frecheville plays Feeney, an Irish Ranger for the British Army, who returns home after deserting his post in Afghanistan. He discovers his mother and brother have died and his family home is now being used to shelter pigs. His plans to move to America with his sister-in-law fail after she and her son are evicted from their home: consequently, she dies of starvation and her son is killed at the hands of the army. It’s all too much for Feeney, who snaps and seeks revenge on the local English ruler (Jim Broadbent). Freddie Fox’s posh officer is in hot pursuit aided by Hugo Weaving’s boozy soldier, Barry Keoghan’s young private and Stephen Rea’s translator. Each of these men will discover something new about themselves as they move closer to Feeney’s bloody reckoning.
With dialogue and a narrative as sparse as the landscape that it inhabits, Black ’47 is a film with a very direct through point. Daly doesn’t worry about anything superfluous; he sets up the drama from the opening, throwing us into the midst of the famine (and subtitled Irish language scenes), while setting-up Frecheville’s Feeney as a man of few words and very many actions. It’s a powerful performance, in a film filled with many solid performances and while the actors might not have much to say, they manage to convey a lot with very little.
Daly’s film relies heavily on the western and he’s borrowed liberally from the genre’s best. Feeney isn’t too far removed from John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s The Searchers – both are deserters and appear also to have have unsaid feelings for their brother’s wives (and their death sets them off on their own person warpath). Feeney also appears to be a distant cousin of The Last Of The Mohicans’ Hawkeye – Hawkeye is a white man who grew up with Native Americans, while Feeney is Irish but he chose to fight for the British. This means both are often seen with suspicion by each side. Brian Byrne’s score is also heavily influenced by the genre’s melodic stirrings. This transposing of the western tropes into a film set in Ireland is a clever move and Daly and company pull it off with aplomb.
A powerful revenge tale, Black ’47 is a well constructed ‘Irish Western’ which manages to touch on a time in Irish history which has often been forgotten by filmmakers. Lance Daly shows a controlled style as director and he manages to take a bleak time in history and make a narrative out of it in a way that never feels exploitative. There’s a lot to recommend in Black ’47 and this rather modest Irish film deserves to seen by a rather wide audience.