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The trope of the hero who’s wronged by evildoers is a common one on screen. It’s normally little more than an excuse to justify righteous, cathartic bloodshed. Lance Daly’s Black 47, a Famine set, Irish Western, ups the ante by asking ‘what if an entire society was devastated?’ What mad acts of revenge will this justify? How cool will they be?
The answer, in short, is ‘very’. While this may be pitched as The Proposition in Connemara it has more in common with Death Wish, First Blood and the grimy revenge flicks of the 70’s. Meanwhile, as a Western it definitely falls closer to the unhinged mania of a Peckinpah than a Ford. Black 47, despite the genre trappings is much more a modern exploitation film than anything else. I mean that as a compliment. There is an unnerving, visceral thrill in watching a big, tick, ginger bearded bogger with a vendetta go through people.
We meet James Frecheville’s Feeney returning to his devastated homestead after deserting the British Army. A brutal, eviction gone wrong turns him from a man with the means to pay for passage out of the country into (trailer voice) a man with nothing to lose. As he crosses targets off his list the crown authorities dispatch a fresh faced, English, public schoolboy sadist (Freddie Fox) and Feeney’s own former comrade (Hugo Weaving) to track him down.
While the filmmakers are painting in broad, red strokes there is enough shading that the story will keep you guessing as to who, if anyone, will be redeemed, who, if anyone, will be damned and who, if anyone, will survive. The excellent supporting cast, featuring by Barry Keoghan, Stephen Rea, Moe Dunford and Jim Broadbent, all flesh out their background roles, breathing life into the various archetypes they’re playing.
To my knowledge there are no historically inaccurate howlers but there is still something almost comic in how a checklist of old grievances are dealt with. Evictions, forced conversions and the fact that the powers that be shipped food out of the country during the Great Hunger still cause some anger in Ireland. In Black 47 these problems are addressed at knife point.
This isn’t, you will have guessed, best viewed as a thoughtful rumination on the Famine. However, as both an entertaining, grim adventure movie and a kind of Galwegian Django Unchained it’s a lot of fun.