‘Black ‘47’: Rage and Retribution
The Emerald Isle never seemed so bleak as in Black ‘47 (three out of four stars), a grim and gritty historical saga from writer/director Lance Daly, based on the short film An Ranger and set in the midst of the Irish Potato Famine, a tragic period that cost the lives of thousands, as well as widening the divide between the Irish and the British – a long-standing enmity that has euphemistically been referred to as “the Troubles” over the years.
James Frecheville, in what could be called the Tom Hardy role, portrays Feeney, an Irish Ranger who ankles his post and returns home to his family – albeit too late. Seeing first-hand the oppression facing his people, he embarks on a one-man crusade of violence against the powers that be.
Feeney isn’t fighting for justice, simply because there’s none to be had. His motive is purely and simply revenge, and as the narrative progresses one can’t help but understand his point of view. With nothing left to lose, he doesn’t fear death – making him a very dangerous man indeed.
Charged with tracking him down is Hannah (Hugo Weaving), an inspector who is initially introduced as he chokes a suspect to death. Sentenced to hang, he can avoid the noose if he accompanies young Captain Pope (Freddie Fox) in pursuit of Feeney. With a dead-eyed determination that rivals Feeney, he agrees.
That Hannah and Feeney had previously served together – with Feeney saving the former’s life – adds to the suspense, as well as recalls a not-dissimilar relationship between Richard Crenna and Sylvester Stallone in First Blood (1982). The hunter understands the quarry – and sympathizes.
Given the period setting, which is persuasively rendered, there are also echoes of the traditional Hollywood Western. Stephen Rea’s informant-cum-guide Conneely might once have been played by the likes of Walter Brennan or George “Gabby” Hayes. Yet like several of the principal characters in Black ‘47, his true loyalties remain in question throughout, and his grubby exterior masks a sharp eye. Nips of whiskey notwithstanding, Conneely knows the score.
That cannot be said of Jim Broadbent’s odious Lord Kilmichael, who represents condescension, greed, and inhumanity in the guise of class entitlement. He is supremely self-confident that a single man, such as Feeney, couldn’t possibly touch him. (Need more be said?)
Black ‘47 is a cheerless, sometimes grueling film, but also an effective one. It examines relevant issues within the context of a blunt but well-told melodrama. It’s effective and well-acted, and although devoid of humor it’s steeped in irony.