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A revenge Western set against the backdrop of the Great Famine, which devastated Ireland in the late 1840s, is an inspired idea. Black 47 reimagines the rural badlands of the Emerald Isle as a kind of rain-sodden Wild West crawling with gun-toting outlaws, crooked land barons and hard-faced men traversing grand empty landscapes on horseback.
The first reaction that Irish writer-director Lance Daly’s Berlin world premiere provokes is surprise that no filmmakers have exploited this dramatic connection before. The second is disappointment at how many times Daly shoots himself in the foot with this dour, sluggish, cliché-choked thriller. Partly backed with both state film and TV funds from Ireland, Black 47 feels more like a small-screen misfire than the grand cinematic epic that this rich story deserves. Theatrical gunpowder is likely to be damp.
The Great Famine was a perfect storm of bad luck, rotten politics, religious bigotry, appalling poverty and arrogant British colonial misrule. It was a preventable tragedy which still looms large in Irish folk memory today, especially in nationalist circles, and understandably so. Even after potato blight destroyed the local staple crop that the poorest rural peasants relied on for basic sustenance, English landowners continued to export mountains of farm produce abroad for profit. Changes in tax law initially intended to ease the crisis only led to unscrupulous landlords evicting thousands of impoverished tenant farmers. Around a million people died from starvation or disease and another million emigrated, shrinking the country’s population by close to 25 percent.
Stone-faced and implacable behind an unflattering beard, Australian rising star James Frecheville (Animal Kingdom) plays Martin Denny, an Irish deserter from the British imperial army who returns home to the rural west of Ireland in 1847 to witness the horrors of the famine first hand. He learns that his mother has already starved to death and his brother has been hanged by an English judge. Meanwhile, a hellish system of forced evictions and demolitions is turfing women and children out out into the deadly rural winter, refugees in their own country.
Already brutalized by his battlefield exploits in Afghanistan, Denny is tipped over the edge by the injustice he witnesses in Ireland. Shelving plans to emigrate to America, he embarks on a one-man revenge mission against the bent policemen, brutal army officers, callous rent collectors, corrupt judges and haughty landowners that enforce the murderous British law. In response, the occupying military authorities send Hannah (Hugo Weaving), one of Denny’s disgraced former army comrades, to track him down, possibly saving himself from a death sentence in the process.
Hannah is accompanied by sneeringly superior English officer Pope (Freddie Fox) and an idealistic young private, Hobson (Barry Keoghan). Ranging across the deep west of Ireland on horseback, the trio are joined by a wily translator with local knowledge, Conneely (Stephen Rea). Both hunter and hunted converge on Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent), a farming baron who is preparing to ship his grain harvest over to England despite the hungry masses thronged outside his gates.
There is ample potential in Black 47 for an exciting action thriller, a timely commentary on refugees and occupying armies, or even a period horror movie. Alas, Daly opts for a grindingly earnest depiction of Celtic martyrdom, complete with mist-topped mountains, morbid folk ballads and suspiciously well-fed peasants huddled together in crumbling stone cottages. The English characters, meanwhile, are all cackling, sadistic, racist snobs who deservedly meet grisly ends. It is rare to see a film that makes Mel Gibson’s Braveheart look like a subtle, accurate history lesson by comparison. Overblown caricatures are the currency of genre cinema, of course, but here they rob a supposedly serious-minded drama of tension and nuance.
Casting Australian leads in an emphatically Anglo-Irish story yields mixed results. Frecheville is a catatonic charisma vacuum as the anti-heroic Denny, letting his unruly beard carry most of the performance. Weaving is a little more convincing as a grizzled war veteran with too much blood on his hands, even if his gruff Cockney accent and Clint Eastwood-style wordless brooding feel labored at times. Irish native Rea at least brings a pleasing hint of impish moral ambivalence to his quietly subversive character, but Broadbent is wasted in his one-dimensional turn as a pompous old aristocratic blowhard.
Credit is due to Daly for long subtitled scenes featuring only Gaelic dialogue, which reinforce the cultural gulf between the occupying Brits and their downtrodden Irish subjects. But it is hard to trust a film which presents the rugged widescreen majesty of western Ireland as a big slab of drab, joylessly painted in 50 shades of desaturated gray. For all its noble intentions, Black 47 is not so much Unforgiven as unforgiveable.
Production companies: Fastnet Films, Primeridien Productions, Samsa Films, UMedia, Bord Scannán na hÉireann/Irish Film Board
Cast: Hugo Weaving, James Frecheville, Stephen Rea, Jim Broadbent, Freddie Fox, Barry Keoghan, Sarah Greene, Moe Dunford
Director: Lance Daly
Screenwriters: PJ Dillon, Pierce Ryan, Eugene O’Brien, Lance Daly
Producers: Macdara Kelleher, Tim O’Hair, Arcadiy Golubovich, Jonathan Loughran
Cinematographer: Declan Quinn
Editors: John Walters, Julian Ulrichs
Music: Brian Byrne
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Sales company: Altitude
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