An Irish soldier, Feeny (James Frencheville), deserts the British Army after punching a superior in Calcutta. It takes him three months to return home. Back in Ireland he finds his country ravaged by famine and his people fallen into hopeless poverty, evicted by landlords under the Irish Poor Laws the British government has imposed. His mother has died of hunger, his brother has been hanged for stealing morsels of food, his cousin and her children have frozen to death after the British destroyed their home and his nephew has been shot on sight for refusing arrest. The British show no mercy to his people, they want the Irish gone, like the Native Americans in Manhattan, according to Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent). Having nothing to loose Feeny starts to systematically kill the people who have brought death to his family. The British government, however, is not ignorant of his deeds and sends Hannah the Hunter (Hugo Weaving) to find and kill him. Feeney and Hannah served together as soldiers in Afghanistan. Hannah is an experienced soldier and hunter and knows Feeny well enough to bring the once brilliant fighter down.
The film depicts the misery of the Great Famine of 1847 realistically in its tone: faithful to the historical rural set, the camera captures the bareness of the Irish winter. The landscape is barren, trees have been CGIed out to reflect the advanced state of the famine: everything the land might have provided would have been used by a people desperate to survive. Each scene is devoid of vivid colours, reflecting the bleakness of famine during a horrific winter.
The film also manages to capture the British mentality towards the Irish, the way they viewed the famine as an act of God, a punishment for laziness and drunkenness. It also depicts the reality of a people exploited by colonialists and left to starve to death, or migrate to the Americas. The young actor Freddie Fox, who plays the British army captain Pope sent to accompany Hannah on his quest, is perfectly cast in the role of the stiff Army brat, following orders no matter what, having completely bought into his Empire’s identity politics. In contrast we have Hannah, played by Hugo Weaving, whose lack of words and emotions is unsettling. Even though Weaving’s performance is minimalist it works very well in depicting a character that keeps his thoughts and emotions to himself, as one should when one is a literal headhunter, traumatized from numerous campaigns throughout the Empire. Weaving said of his character that he is so damaged he is unable to look at himself, which is interesting as there are two scenes in which Hannah sits in front of a mirror, both times with a stiff drink in his hand.
James Frenchville’s Feeny is the heart of the story. The audience feels for him as his initial pain turns into cold rage. The transformation is gradual but lasting. Frenchville understands his character and his motivations. Although Frenchville is Australian his Irish accent is perfect. In an interview he stated that to test whether or not his accent was flawless, he tried it out in Ireland and the locals completely bought it.
The director and screenwriter Lance Daly has a background in art house cinema and is still at the beginning of his career, Black ‘47 being only the sixth film he has directed. Not much is known about the Irish director as fame hasn’t exposed his life yet.
Making a film about a historical event such as the Great Famine is surely no easy feat. This is the first film of this kind, dubbed by some a Potato Western. The Great Famine still has an effect on Ireland. Although it had happened 170 years ago, Ireland’s population is still lower nowadays than it was previous to the famine and thus is the only population in Europe to be lower now than it was then.
Many scenes are in Irish Gaelic, revealing part of a culture that has been lost. In the movie the Irish are tried benevolently, if they don’t speak English to defend themselves in court, they are dealt any old sentence. The British went ruthlessly about changing Irish culture. Seamus Heaney, a well-known Irish poet and playwright, once stated that the Britsh also changed all the names of towns and cities from Gaelic to English to disrupt a sense of Irish identity.
A huge success in Ireland, Black ‘47was released in September 2018, starred at the Berlinale and can now be watched on Amazon. This movie should definitely be watched. Politics is kept to a minimum, it doesn’t try to make a statement, rather it just depicts a man lost in circumstances.
By Laura Schwanbeck