“Maybe people would place more value on beauty if they could eat it,” says Conneely (Stephen Rea) during an atypically warm-toned fireside scene in Lance Daly’s powerful period revenge fable “Black 47.” His bland affability is such that you could almost miss the splinter of loathing in his eyes. The year is 1847, Ireland’s Great Famine is scarcely even approaching its devastating midpoint, and Conneely makes his barbed observation in response to an English landlord’s callous remark about how the ragged and starving locals show no appreciation for the stark grandeur of the Connemara landscape.
But it also illuminates the void into which Daly (“Kisses,” “The Good Doctor,” “Life’s a Breeze”) pours his taciturn, oddly cathartic little story. The appreciation of beauty, and the creation of art to celebrate it, is easier achieved when there’s something in your belly, which accounts for why so little of it remains to us from this time and place. Compared to other eras in Ireland’s history, there is no great wealth of contemporary Famine literature, few photographs document its excesses and even fewer films. It’s as though, through a combination of catastrophic crop failure and a deliberate program of socio-economic deprivation, people were too busy dying where they stood to bother pondering the mysteries of life.
And so this may well be the first encounter international audiences will have had with the Great Hunger, and for them Daly delivers a resonant, beautifully performed Irish Western that benefits from the exotic sound of Irish Gaelic spoken as a living language, and the brackish majesty of cinematographer Declan Quinn’s wide vistas. But Quinn is more closely associated with such intimate dramas as “Leaving Las Vegas” and the films of Jonathan Demme, and he never loses the humans for their bleakly picturesque backdrop. Similarly, Brian Byrne’s ominous score contains some traditional uilleann pipe flourishes but avoids cliched Irishness with its brooding, disquieting anti-melodic edge of modernity.
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For today’s Irish audiences, or anyone acquainted with the full freight of the word “Sassenach” as it’s used here (it simply means “Englishman” but carries all sorts of pejorative associations in context), there’s more to “Black 47”: There’s the satisfaction of seeing an ancient, rankling injustice addressed, be it only through fiction. Daly’s restrained, pared-down style is the opposite of flashy exploitation cinema, but watching these bastions of lethally repressive British rule get some overdue comeuppance is similarly stirring.
The simple, linear narrative begins as Feeney (a charismatic James Frecheville) returns to his West of Ireland home having deserted from the British military, to discover that his family home has been “tumbled” (rendered uninhabitable), his mother is dead, and his brother’s been hanged for stabbing a bailiff. When that tragedy repeats itself right in front of Feeney’s haunted eyes, he abandons his plans to sail to America and instead embarks on a journey of revenge against the officials, landowners, and collaborators responsible. He even finds time to swipe at the hypocrisy of the traveling missionary Protestants who will feed Catholics thin soup in return for their conversion — not just to their faith but to Britishness in general. “What is your name?” asks the preacher. “Séamus Ó Súilleabháin,” a man replies. “James Sullivan,” translates the preacher’s assistant crisply.
There’s a macabre, ironic poetry to how each villain meets his end that gives Feeney, whose impassive features behind his wiry beard resemble the etchings on a tombstone grown over with lichen, a much-needed twist of dark wit. It’s never particularly grisly, with Daly often opting to depict the aftermath of brutality rather than the act itself, but there are decapitations, strangulations and a drowning-in-grain en route to the Boss Level that is Lord Kilmichael, played with brilliant hatefulness by Jim Broadbent, who looks like a Hogarth portrait, if Hogarth had ever painted the Penguin.
Feeney is pursued by a motley posse of four led by Captain Pope (Freddie Fox), an eminently punchable young zealot in his ridiculous regimental red and gold, as blonde and peach-cheeked as a serving of cobbler with custard. The callow Private Hobson (Barry Keoghan, again bringing his weird, wired energy to a small role and transforming it) serves as his orderly and Stephen Rea’s ambivalent, pragmatic Conneely sells the party his services as translator and guide.
But it’s Hugo Weaving’s embittered, exhausted Hannah who is the reluctant lynchpin: after serving alongside Feeney as a ranger in Afghanistan, his undistinguished subsequent career as a policeman has seen him sentenced to death for killing a suspect in custody — a fate he can only avoid if he brings Feeney in. Weaving is superb, delivering his lines in a rumble that he dredges up from deep inside and when he and Frecheville’s Feeney finally do come face to face, or rather whiskers to beard, the hard-bitten exchanges are almost as eloquent as the silences, which are stretched so taut they twang.
At times the action is a little too dressed-to-camera, as bony, barefoot evictees, wrapped in tattered shawls that already look like shrouds, mill around roadsides staring hollowly at passersby. And a few of the matte-painting-style backgrounds look a little unconvincing — though that may be because we’re unused to seeing the Irish countryside dotted with so many dwellings, because of the very decimation of the rural population that happened during this period.
But in every other way, Daly’s characterful, slow-burn tale is a well-crafted experiment in grafting genre onto disregarded history. And it’s needed, because mass starvation has never really been the stuff of epic cinema, especially when there were no “Braveheart”-style battles for freedom here, just a million souls slowly wasting, wastefully away.
Repeating, with a chortle, a refrain that would subsequently make it into Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Lord Kilmichael looks forward to the day when “a Celtic Irishman in Ireland will be as rare a sight as a Red Indian in Manhattan.” That genocidal vision never came to pass, and in its modest way, the understated, spartan “Black 47” makes it feel even more gratifyingly remote, by quickening the Celtic blood you perhaps didn’t even know was flowing through your veins.