Berlin Hidden Gem: 'Black 47' Turns History Into a Thriller

Black 47 Still 1- Berlin International Film Festival - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

A soldier returns to his ravaged homeland in Lance Daly’s revenge drama set against the backdrop of the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800s.

Finding a cinematic route into of one the bleakest periods in a country’s history is no easy feat, which may be why Black 47 is the first film set during Ireland’s devastating famine of the mid-19th century.

“It’s sort of the most important single moment in Irish history, and one of the darker chapters in the history of the relationship between Britain and Ireland,” says director Lance Daly, known for the 2008 award-winning coming-of-age drama Kisses. “So it’s amazing that another filmmaker hasn’t tackled it before.”

The Great Famine (also known as the Great Hunger or, for those outside the Emerald Isle, the Irish Potato Famine) saw crop failures, exacerbated by deeply unjust economic, ethnic and political factors stemming from Ireland's British colonial rulers, lead to the starvation of an estimated 1 million people and mass emigration that continued well into the 20th century.

“It’s such a tough story of suffering and hardship — it was tricky to find a way to do that in cinema that isn’t going to be punishing for the audience,” Daly says. Black 47 (1847 was considered the height of the disaster) uses the famine as the backdrop for a thriller about an Irish soldier who returns to his ravaged homeland after fighting for the British Army. “And through the story — which is an outsider perspective in a way — we tell the story of the famine. All the major players are represented in it, all the systemic problems, the historic problems, are alluded to, but always through the prism of what is essentially an action revenge drama.”

More than 150 years later the disaster is still something of an open wound, with former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair causing friction in 1997 when he accused “those who governed in London,” seen as the first hint of an actual apology from the British authorities. And while he claims to have “avoided being political about it,” Daly says he does “apportion blame” in Black 47.

To do so, the director, whose first major film credit was as a 15-year-old playing “Kid with Harmonica” in 1991 Irish smash hit The Commitments (“I have the door slammed in my face,” he says with a laugh), has amassed an impressive lineup of acting talent new and old, including Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Jim Broadbent and rising star Barry Keoghan.

As it may sound, the Berlin out-of-competition title doesn’t exactly conclude on a high note, although Daly claims he did feel pressure to give it a Braveheart-style finale (something that he admits may have seen a few more resources flung his way).

“I felt responsible to the story and the truth of it to not put a happy ending on,” he says. “The trick was trying to avoid that but still have the audience going out feeling like they had a good time and aren’t miserable. And I think the biggest success is how it ends.”