Black '47 Reviews
Easily the most anticipated Irish film of the last decade or so, Black '47 is advertised as the "first film about the Great Famine". And were this true, it would undoubtedly occupy a canonical place in Irish artistic output. However, it isn't the first film about the Famine. It's the first film set during the Famine, but it isn't about the Famine. This is a genre film, a revenge western set against the backdrop of the Famine. The Famine is not the film's central theme, nor does it attempt to engage with it on a national scale. And if you accept that, there's actually quite a lot here to admire.
Black '47 has no intentions of dealing with the Famine on a national scale, but using the Famine as a backdrop for a genre exercise is a wise choice - it allows limited engagement by way of a plot-driven story, without setting up massive expectations and unconquerable thematic hurdles. No Famine narrative could ever depict a protagonist righting all the wrongs, because no such person existed. However, the contained story of Fenney's (James Frecheville) revenge is more than aware of that. He is never painted as someone out to liberate the country, spurred on by the wrongs done to him personally. He wants revenge on the people who wronged him; he has no aspirations of saving Ireland.
In terms of how the film represents the Famine, apart from its importance to the plot, co-screenwriter/director Lance Daly uses a number of "quintessential Famine images". These include one of the first shots in the film, which shows a skull sinking into the wet mud, representing the dead and their connection to the land (a little on the nose, but it does the job); when Ellie (Sarah Greene) first appears, she looks like Caitlin Ni Uallachain, the implication being that Ireland itself is literally dying; when she and her children are evicted, the scene is very much an archetype of such evictions; a Catholic priest warning the starving peasants not to "take the soup"; peasants taking the soup; grain being stockpiled for export to England; bedraggled peasants huddled at the gates of an affluent estate; multiple references to emigration. In point of fact, although the Famine is essentially just background, Daly works hard to make sure the viewer never forgets what's happening beyond the edges of the frame, by occasionally allowing it within the frame.
Perhaps the most long-lasting effect of the Famine is that it decimated the Irish language. The Famine is why this review is in English, and why I can speak only a few sentences in my native tongue. In seven years, the Famine did what the English couldn't manage in 700 - it destroyed that which defined us as a people, our very national identity. However, not only are large sections of Black '47 in Irish, the film actually uses the Irish language as an important recurring motif. For example, Fenney speaks both English and Irish, but he makes a conscious decision to only speak Irish, even when talking to non-Irish speakers. The film also shows a judge erupting in anger as peasants in his courtroom, unable to speak English, begin to converse in Irish, whilst Lord Kilmichael refers to Gaeilge as "that aboriginal gibberish". However, the most important scene concerning the Irish language is in the Protestant soup kitchen - when the priest asks a peasant his name, the man replies "Seamus O Suilleabhain". The priest turns to a translator, who responds, "James Sullivan". This speaks to the Anglicisation of Irish place names by the British, itself an attempt to destroy the language and undermine our sense of place. Daly never allows the devastating effect the Famine had on the language to fade into the background, and the narrative is all the better for it.
Of course, all of this is not to say the film is perfect. Composer Brian Byrne's score is overly didactic. Additionally, the character of Kilmichael is something of a cliched, token villain. Daly also has a slight tendency to unsuccessfully mix naturalism with stylisation, perhaps most obvious in the use of intentionally artificial looking matte paintings as backgrounds. Whilst the intention behind this was most likely to try to evoke the look of old sepia photographs, contemporary audiences used to photorealistic CGI will probably interpret it as cheap effects work.
However, all things considered, this is a strong and reasonably important piece of filmmaking. Yes, it's essentially just a revenge western, and there are a hundred films along these lines, several of them better than Black '47. However, Daly allows the Famine to come to the fore sufficiently so that we never forget when and where we are. Mixing the historical with the generic just enough so that each informs the other without either becoming (too) diluted, it's not the first "Famine film", but it is a very decent, honest, and respectful attempt to put something of that great tragedy on screen.
Initially people blamed the famine on greedy landlords for putting their houses on AirBnB but it was soon discovered that the government were hoarding houses and selling them abroad despite their own people dying on the streets.
Black 47, probably the most RIC complimentary film of the year, set to the backdrop of the Irish Potato Famines of 1845 and 1849 has a very similar feel to it. It's not exactly a history movie. I think Tara Brady of the Irish Times puts it best when she says it's not spaghetti western, it's a potato western, which is a good indication of what to expect from this movie.
The story line is set around one man and his psychopath sidekick who travel through the west of Ireland without a word of Gaelic, to be honest there are parts of Connaught I wouldn't go to now without brushing up on my cupla focail, not to mind going there in the 19th century sounding like a contestant from the great British bake off as the whole country was starving to death.
The English gentleman and his soldier hound are searching for an Irish Ranger who's deserted the army. The ranger equipped with his Rambo knife and gritty stares is causing havoc in lawless towns, galloping around on Shergar Fado Fado through beautiful sweeping landscapes and low budget CGI.
The movie let's itself down by focusing too much on the potato western gun slinging shootouts and omits to connect to the audience on an emotional level. For me it's not dark enough to earn the title "Black" as there is a lack of poignant scenes that leave you spellbound.
Perhaps Irish people of the time didn't cry, I have a 2nd cousin who still thinks hugging other men is gay so maybe it's true to the time, but I'd bet my last bitcoin that there were more tears shed in 1847 than this movie depicts, after all one million people died of starvation....that's not a joke, let that sink in for a while, then think about another one million people who were forced to immigrate on coffin ships, then think about hugging your cousin next time you see him Ray.
The script is the movies saving point, well written, surprisingly funny in parts and the accents have a deep Irish authenticity without coming across as half witted youtube mock-ups. The film honours Irish culture and makes an approachable effort to visit the history and the tragedy of the famine. In that sense it's a worthwhile watch, but from a standalone point of view it's not going to stack up with other releases this year or other great Irish movies with an historical setting.
A must see for 3 rather impressive performances.