Film review: Black '47 delivers a feast out of the Famine

“Everyone’s dying of hunger,” one character observes, “and they’re putting food on a boat.” A ranger deserts the British army in Afghanistan in 1847 to return home to Ireland, only to find his country in the middle of The Great Famine. What’s left of his family distrusts him for “taking the queen’s schilling,” as Feeney admits, but they won’t have long to object in any case. His nephew gets shot down and the rest are thrown into the snow to freeze to death, and Feeney sets out to wreak his revenge. The British army sends out a man as ruthless as Feeney to stop him — and someone who knows Feeney only too well.

Black ’47 barely made a dent at the US box office last September, despite getting good reviews (75% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes) and having a couple of well-known actors in the ensemble, Hugo Weaving (Lord of the Rings, The Matrix franchises) and Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge, Gangs of New York). Most people may not know it even exists. However, Black ’47 deserves its high ratings as it delivers impressively on its promise as both a gripping revenge film and an insight into the Irish famine.

Just as a revenge film, Black ’47 provides a gripping tale and escalating tension all the way to the end. James Frecheville makes Feeney’s struggles between shame and rage evident from his first appearance, as well as provides hints along the way of how his interior hopelessness matches his surroundings. Weaving plays Hannah, the man sent out to track Feeney down after his first burst of violence, and who struggles with the same issues for very different reasons. Loyalty and betrayal are constant struggles for both, which makes them formidable foes … if they can be called that.

The film’s value goes well beyond that, however. Unlike most films about Ireland which tend to mythologize it, or at least focus on its raw beauty, there’s precious little beautiful about this land in Black ’47. “The peasants are all the same,” Broadbent’s Lord Kilmichael observes at one point, “no appreciation for beauty.” Stephen Rea’s Conneely replies, “Beauty would be held in much higher regard, sir, if it could be eaten.”

“Bleak” hardly does justice to the film’s vision of Ireland in 1847. The cinematography has sapped most of the color out of the landscape, making it seem as dead as the potato crops. (As the film explains — in fact, it’s important to the action — that’s the only crop that failed. Ireland’s landowners continued to export everything else during the famine.) The Irish in Connemara, where the action takes place and where Black ’47 was filmed, are starving scarecrows, thrown off the land and either dying or emigrating in droves.

If there is one flaw in Black ’47, it might be the tendency toward making the antagonists somewhat two-dimensional. The structure of a revenge film requires that to be the case, though, and Weaving provides plenty of subtlety to his Hannah. If Broadbent and Freddie Fox as Captain Pope don’t have as much room for it, they still make good use of what they can. Fox is surprisingly impactful as the hard believer in supremacy, while Broadbent’s Lord Kilmichael is a man who believes more in rationalizations. Nevertheless, both men subscribe to the same overall philosophy in the end. “There are those who look forward to the day,” Kilmichael observes, “when a Celtic Irishman is as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian in Manhattan.”

The Irish language plays a key part in this film as well. A significant portion of dialogue takes place in Irish, accompanied by stylized English subtitles, and forms a significant part of the conflict. In 1847 the Irish language had already begun its retreat but still was the primary language of native Irish in Connemara — indeed, the only language for some, if not most. Being a student of Gaeilge for eighteen years (off and on), I bought Black ’47 at first to use it as a study for the language. The film turned out to be much more than that, but it’s still a good depiction of the language too. Since it forms an important element to the film, it doesn’t interfere with it; in fact, it enhances the sense of intrusion which the film emphasizes.

One can enjoy Black ’47 on any level, perhaps especially because the performances are so strong and the emotional connection so easily made. The final scene, however, is a masterful allegory. To say more would be to spoil it, but it’s well done.

Unfortunately, it’s not all that much easier to access Black ’47 now than it was in September. It’s available for rent or purchase at Amazon in digital form, in either DVD or Blu-Ray quality, but (as far as I know) not available on any other streaming format and almost impossible to find in stores. There are no extras on the streaming video purchase, which was quite disappointing, but the high-definition price was good at $14.99. Using the Hot Air scale for films already on home theater platforms, Black ’47 gets a 4:

  • 4 – Buy the Blu-Ray/DVD
  • 3 – Worth a rental price or pay-per-view
  • 2 – Wait for it to come on a TV channel you already get
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

Black ’47 is rated R for realistic, and at times graphic, violence and language. It’s not a film for children, and it might be a little too much for younger teens too.