In the year of 1845 a terrible famine descended upon Ireland. Within a few short years, 1 in 4 of our people would be gone forever—fled to England or North America . . . or dead from starvation or fever. Irishmen who had enlisted to fight for the occupying British crown in its foreign wars returned home to find only death and destruction in every corner of the land.
Black 47 is a vigorous, stylized revenge thriller-cum-historical drama. An “Irish Braveheart” isn’t quite a fitting label, for reasons I will get into below. A top-notch neo-western, Black 47 is more an “Irish The Outlaw Josey Wales.”
Feeney returns from service to the Crown as a Connaught Ranger in Afghanistan to find his home tumbled and inhabited by pigs, his mother starved, his brother hanged. We later learn he deserted. He plans to continue on to America, enjoining a young woman and her family to join him (if the movie makes their connection clear I missed it). But history sets to repeating itself, and not tardily. A tumbling of her home results in the killing of her brother, Feeney’s arrest, and her death from exposure that night. Now wanted in Ireland, Feeney’s mind turns back from America toward vengeance.
After the initial setup (much of it in subtitled Gaelic), the focus shifts to Hugo Weaving’s Hannah. Hannah is a failed policeman awaiting execution for killing a prisoner. He is given a reprieve in return for agreeing to hunt down Feeney. We mostly follow Hannah and the English captain accompanying him as they track Feeney’s killings across twisted Irish landscapes pocked with gaunt, dirty Irish (entertainment news is always going on about some actor or another losing weight for a role—every actor and extra who plays an Irish person in Black 47 looks like they’ve been on a crash diet for the last three months).
The change in focus makes for a slow burn. Much of the increasingly stylized violence takes place off screen. Black 47 isn’t a horror movie by any stretch of the imagination, but horror tropes are used to good effect. The tension is punctuated by set pieces that are absolutely electric. Between the subtitles, the scenery, and the action, you won’t want to take your eyes off the screen, so close the laptop and pour yourself a few fingers of Irish whiskey (but not Bushmill’s—that’s Protestant whiskey).
Black 47 isn’t as Hollywood as Braveheart, a finely made film that never takes the hard road storytelling-wise and only makes passing jabs at historical accuracy. Black 47 doesn’t follow conventional models. It isn’t the deaths of his family that sets off the violence, and the groundwork for his rampage is sparse. It sometimes feels less like righteous vengeance than inchoate rage. I’m not sure the filmmakers ever want us to feel entirely settled in enjoying the violence.
But then one of the very Hollywood aspects of Braveheart is that William Wallace shows limited interest in the Scottish cause until it affects him in a very direct way. But, for Black 47, this time it isn’t really personal. Feeney is a man with a particular set of skills—the finest soldier Hannah ever knew—but the film makes clear his story is one played out across Ireland over and over throughout the Great Hunger. The alternative to the view from the above paragraph is that the film is aimed at Irish partisans. Or, savvily, aimed well at both. Black 47 did well in limited release in Ireland, but should be appreciated by audiences in America and elsewhere. You don’t need to be a Southerner or Native American to appreciate The Outlaw Josey Wales, after all.
I was a little self-effacing in my post-St. Patrick’s Day Music Monday post. Shouldn’t we be a little ashamed of all claiming to be Irish one day a year as an excuse to get drunk? Well, yes. But. America provided opportunity for a struggling people. We ought to feel a little proud of that, just as I feel a little proud to live in the Rust Belt. Heavy industry in the Rust Belt helped pull a lot of hillbillies out of poverty after their own diaspora via hillbilly highways. Even if there was, in fact, something “wrong with Detroit that three or four factories can’t solve.”
Black 47 isn’t subtle with its positioning. The film has a lot of sympathy for Irish who sit through hours of Protestant preaching and “renounce the Roman Catholic Church” in return for soup (“We all ate the soup”), who cooperate with the English (including the translator who gets the memorable “beauty would be held in much higher regard, sir, if it could be eaten” line), and who, like Feeney, take the Crown’s money to serve in its armies. Those who take direct part, on the other hand, receive no sympathy. They also never, ever take responsibility for their actions. It is always the fault of their superiors or the Irish themselves. A sergeant who shoots a man claims, “I only followed his Lordship’s orders.” His Lordship can muster no more than “that seems accurate” in response.
There is too much here to like to list it all. I will highlight how visually striking the movie is, the frequent black powder gun fights and Feeney’s free hand with his kukri, and the electrifying first meeting between Feeney and Hannah. With a runtime of just an hour and 40 minutes, the pacing is brisk. My only real complaint about the movie is that it doesn’t quite manage to properly build to an effective climax. It is a proper climax in theory but didn’t stir in me the emotional crescendo of a great climax.
I’ve seen some critics complain that it tries to be both a serious historical drama and a revenge thriller. One of the reasons I love country noir and its cousin literary sub-genres is that they, more than any other sub-genres I have found, marry all of the best aspects of literary and pulp writing. Black 47 isn’t quite a great movie, but it does the same.
Black 47 is a dark film, but it ends with a ray of hope. Maybe.
4.5 of 5 Stars.
Jim on Black 47 at Frontier Partisans.
Never Felt Better on Black 47.
Hamish Calvert on Black 47 at HCMovieReviews.