Film Review: Black '47

In the midst of famine, an Irish soldier looks for revenge.
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Black ’47 is sort of a new take on the neo-westerns of the 1960s, with a single-minded, mostly silent, 19th-century avenger stalking a barren landscape, hunting down the villains who hung his brother and threw their family off their land.

Except in this case, “the West” is the west of Ireland.

Still, the parallels to vintage Clint Eastwood films abound, from the jangly, Ennio Morricone-style score to our anti-hero’s gruesome sense of humor—one piggish character meets a disgustingly appropriate end—and his ability to take on entire police stations singlehandedly.

It’s also, in its appeal to our often-lurking thirst for rough justice, immensely satisfying.

James Frecheville is Feeney, an AWOL soldier from Her Majesty’s Army who has come home to Connemara in the winter of “Black ‘47”—the worst year of the Great Famine, a catastrophe that left one million Irish dead and another million in economic exile. Feeney’s home is in ruins. Most of his family is dead and buried.

So Feeney decides to send the British occupiers and their Irish collaborators off to join them.

The avenging-angel theme is very ’60s western—a connection that deepens, and darkens, when, as in The Wild Bunch, an old colleague of Feeney’s, played by Hugo Weaving, is drafted into service and sent out to hunt down his former friend.

But if the themes feel a little familiar, the details are—despite a number of Australians in the cast—convincingly Irish. Filmed on location, the background is a blasted landscape of mud and rock, all the green turned to grey. Chunks of the dialogue are in (subtitled) Gaelic.

And Feeney’s own stubborn determination to enter a battle he has almost no chance of winning is, I’ll admit, perhaps the most Irish thing of all.

Frecheville is an impressive presence as the stoic vigilante, but there aren’t a lot of colors to him. Luckily, we get a few more interesting folks among the rest of the characters, including Weaving as Feeney’s old Army comrade and Stephen Rea as a rascally survivor who, for the price of a few coins, joins the British posse. Also lively are Freddie Fox as a toffee-nosed English captain and Jim Broadbent as an old Anglo nobleman supremely indifferent to the peasants dying just outside his doors.

And yes, if you were suspecting, this is not a film to turn to in search of Britons who “mean well” or climactic speeches that begin “We’re not that different, you and I.” There isn’t an Englishman here who isn’t worthy of Feeney’s bloody rage—or, in fact, any Irishman in a position of power who isn’t a traitor, too. (Women, meanwhile, barely exist, except to suffer, mourn and die.)

No, this is a simple, macho morality tale—of the oppressors and the oppressed, of good and evil, and of the one man who sets out to settle the scales of justice. And the level on which it works is primal—and frighteningly effective.