Director Lance Daly and Eugene O’Brien co-wrote the script of Black ’47 with P. J. Dillon and Pierce Ryan, the screenwriters behind the 2008 short An Ranger, which Black ’47 is an adaptation to feature length of. The film owes its title to the darkest year of the Great Irish Famine that ravaged Ireland between 1845 and 1849. It is, however, not just a story of starvation, but also one of greed, oppression and pride, told as a Western that substitutes fiery deserts and rocky valleys for green, wind-swept hills, mud roads and snow-covered fields, the scorching midday sun for frost under a perennially overcast sky.
It is to a frozen, starving Ireland that Martin Feeney (James Frecheville) returns after many years after taking the King’s shilling and deserting the Connaught Rangers. He finds his family dead or evicted, and the British government keener on collecting taxes and handing out punishment than on helping the Irish people survive the famine. Feeney thus sets out on a murderous path of revenge. Although his quest lacks the conceptual and affective density of the short, it allows the writers to show multiple facets of British oppressors, whether it be sheer cruelty of indifference (many of Feeney’s victims claim, “I was just following orders”): from the withholding of grain to rough justice, from the destruction of shacks to souperism (the handing out of soup only upon converting to Protestantism).
To stop Feeney, the British government sends former inspector Hannah (Hugo Weaving). Hannah worked for the Royal Irish Constabulary until he throttled a member of the Young Irelander movement during questioning. The only way he can avoid the hangman is by assisting arrogant officer Pope (Freddie Fox) in tracking down Feeney, whom Hannah served in Afghanistan with.
That between protagonist and antagonist is not a clear-cut division, and Feeney and Hannah fulfill both roles at different points in the story. Overall, however, the morality of the characters is not particularly complex, with the British government taking on the role of the indisputably evil villain and Feeney’s string of gruesome murders bordering on glamorization, or anyway never being weighted on the ethical scale. Although Hannah and Pope display more or less interesting signs of inner conflict, the characters are mostly superficial, and the rare changes predictable and by the numbers. It is difficult to be invested into them, which, together with the historical denunciation taking maybe too often the backseat in terms of effective substance, leads to lulls in the film that are somewhat galvanized by the spectacular gore spread by Feeney, although this may further undermine the polemical charge of the film.
The shallow character depth also limits the actors’ possibilities. Weaving’s hardened yet ambivalent portrayal of Hannah is flawless, and Fox does justice even to the fluctuations of Pope’s character that fail to rise to true development; however, like the rest of the talented cast, the narrow emotional range allowed by the script forces them into performances with little variation. Frecheville is particularly stifled, as, after the first ten minutes, most he does amounts to sitting, glaring, and fighting. Apropos combat scenes, the choreographies are satisfactory, and great attention is devoted to the accurate representation of the firearms of the time, much more prone to misfiring and missing than modern guns. Sadly, this meticulousness is always used in ways that favor the main characters or the overarching plot, nearly lapsing into deus ex machina levels of convenience.
Black ‘47’s strongest suit might just be its mise-en-scène. The natural scenery provides a stunning and splendidly utilized backdrop for outdoor scenes, while the dim lighting of the interiors has a deeply expressive quality to it and, although it causes the colors to fade into each other, it creates a fittingly somber atmosphere, whether it be while highlighting opulence or underlining squalor. Fans of the Western genre will certainly enjoy watching its tropes play out in such a different setting, but the films has something to offer to other spectators as well, with its historical vindication providing a starting point for who wishes to learn more about the Great Famine and the scathing indictment of an uncaring foreign power.