Berlinale: Black 47

Black 47
Black 47
Directed by Lance Daly
Starring Hugo Weaving, James Frecheville, Stephen Rea, Freddie Fox, Barry Keoghan, Moe Dunford, Sarah Greene and Jim Broadbent

by Marko Domazet

The year is 1874, the great famine is ravaging through Ireland rendering many people unable to eat and fend for themselves. Feeney, a rough as they come Irish Army Ranger, returns home from a tour oversees to find that most of his family has perished to the famine, and the village he left behind is beyond recognition. Faced with poverty, malnourished people and a system that seems unwilling to offer any help, Black 47 follows Feeney as he silently makes his way across the landscape, slowly eliminating those he feels are in one way or another responsible for the demise of his family. It’s not long before Hannah, a famous tracker, is dispatched along with a sergeant from the English Army to put a stop to Feeney’s rampage. Cue an epic, silent, and at times very violent search, where all involved are pushed to the limits by the brutal landscape and people within it.

The story told in Black 47 is not a new one. In fact, the mind races to many-an-old samurai film or the more recent Kill Bill. However, what makes this film stand out is the setting the story is told in. From a historic point, the Great Famine is regarded as one of the greatest social disasters of the 19th century. During a 5-year-period, the population was reduced by 25% (!) due to what can be attributed to a single event. Yet, as formative as the Great Famine was for Ireland, it seems a widely unexplored theme cinematically.

The director uses the harsh Irish landscape and a menacing score to paint a vivid picture of the hopelessness that so many people found themselves in. Juxtaposed with the cinematic landscape, the slow-burning plot offers up economic storytelling at its best. Explanations aren’t given, like in life, things just unfold and you are left to connect the dots. One special mention must also go to the use of spoken Gaelic throughout the film. A wonderful touch, but also a great tool to demonstrate the divide between the Irish and English speakers at the time. Sure, at times, the art direction is a little obvious (there are a lot of barefoot people draped in rags) and the landscape sometimes resemble paintings a bit too much, but overall, it works very well.

The acting throughout the film is solid in most of the cases. In the male lead, James Frecheville has mastered the art of throwing glances that look like they could (and do) kill. Hugo Weaving plays a man of very few words, but his facial expressions tell a story of their own – and boy do you find out a thing or two about his character as the story evolves. Jim Broadbent is…well… Jim Broadbent. Even playing a highly unsympathetic character (refreshing choice!) he can do no wrong. The one notable exception to this is Freddie Fox. Beautiful to look at, the stiffness of his character works against him and it takes a bit too long before his character is allowed any depth and a chance to make a mark.

Overall, this is a solid piece of filmmaking. If you’re in the mood for an Irish Western (as odd as that sounds), a slow-burning story and an eye opener about a time in history rarely spoken of, then this one could be for you.


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