HANGRY: Black ’47 Film Brings Ireland’s Great Hunger Into Focus—With A Vengeance
(ABOVE: James Frecheville stars as Maírtín Feeney, an Irish Ranger who returns home from war to find his own land besieged by famine and corruption in Black ’47.)
by Christopher Halleron
Given the scope and the impact of the Irish Famine—which left approximately one million dead, sent two million fleeing the island, and left a permanent scar in the soul of every person claiming even a wee drop of Irish blood worldwide—it’s surprising that it hasn’t been addressed in a feature film before.
Then again, it isn’t. How does one convey omnipresent bleak desperation for 90+ minutes, and expect to maintain the audience?
Screenwriter and director Lance Daly has found his answer in Black ’47, which offers an acute synopsis of this terrible period of human greed and suffering, told through an eye-opening and enthralling revenge tale.
When Maírtín Feeney (James Frecheville) returns to the West of Ireland after serving the Crown abroad, he bears witness to the abject misery inflicted upon his people by the ruling British—notably regional landlord Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent). Pushed over the edge almost immediately, Feeney engages in a campaign of revenge, as Inspector Hannah (Hugo Weaving) and the translator Conneely (Stephen Rea) are dispatched to quell this one-man rebellion—along with a haughty British officer (Freddie Fox) and a greenhorn private (Barry Keoghan).
The film’s writers (Lance Daly, P.J. Dillon, Eugene O’Brien, Pierce Ryan) prove to be as tactically savvy as the protagonist, avoiding the numerous traps and lazy tropes that could easily have derailed this storyline. Braveheart—the definitive film of Celtic retribution from the Crown—wilts somewhat in the light of history. Black ’47 manages to maintain a general sense of viability, painting a brutally honest picture of one of the most ghastly episodes in Western History.
Told in the vein of the Hollywood western, Black ’47 is far from the exuberant tale of the “Wild Colonial Boy,” but rather a pragmatic look touching on causes, perceptions and failures that exacerbated the Irish potato famine—while evoking the sadly fictional response it warranted.
Although Hollywood has seemingly viewed the Great Hunger as too intimidating a nut to crack open, Black ’47 slices right to the core with punishing thwack. Stellar performances and strong, deliberate writing tell a tale that’s both viciously sharp and brutally deadening. Declan Quinn‘s cinematography does a phenomenal job of painting the verdant hills of contemporary tourist-rich Ireland as the chilly, hopeless landscape facing all those who either fled or died trying.
Cinemagoers will walk out of Black ’47 thirsty for retribution—and so, so hungry…
Opens September 28
Rated: R – Action/Drama – 100 minutes
Starring: James Frecheville, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Jim Broadbent
(Many thanks to Irish Network USA for the special screening at IFC Center)