Caught this on Virgin’s On-Demand service, it’s also out on DVD.
Irish people have a strange way of remembering the Great Famine. Its very mention conjures vivid images in the mind, aided no doubt by the most popular Irish children’s book of the last thirty years, Marita Conlon McKenna’s Under the Hawthorn Tree. However, anyone who has tried to study the Famine in an academic or historical setting comes up against a wall of silence; the same thin pool of sources pop up again and again.
Survivors did not talk about their experiences. Aside from folklore like the “hungry grass”, stories weren’t passed down, especially not individual ones. It was a desperate time, and people can do anything to survive in desperate times. An element of survivors’ guilt exists. The excellent and stirring touring exhibition Coming Home (which I saw last year at Dublin Castle) explores how art relating to the Famine Years only really came into being in the 20th century. There has been a turning point; and the success of last year’s film Black ’47 confirms we are finally able to talk about the Famine.
While our film industry is quite strong for such a small country, it can be hard to persuade Irish audiences to go see Irish films. Black ’47 had no such problems, assisted greatly by word of mouth. Deservedly, it’s one of our highest grossing films in years.
Feeney (James Frecheville) is a Connaught Ranger who has deserted his post in India and come back to his native Connemara during the worst year of the Famine, 1847. His mother has died while he’s been gone; she starved rather than “take the soup” and convert to Protestantism. Feeney stays with his brother’s widow and her three children. They are evicted; his nephew is shot, and Feeney arrested. Breaking out of the police station, and killing a few cops on his way, he returns to the destroyed cottage to see his sister-in-law and niece have frozen to death, and his oldest niece has disappeared. So begins Feeney’s mission of revenge; he is in turn pursued by the British authorities, led by Hannah (Hugo Weaving). Hannah is accompanied by a young private (Barry Keoghan) and the arrogant officer Pope (Freddie Fox) embodying every possible snide Englishman trope available. The Englishmen hire out the services of Conneely (Stephen Rea) as a translator, and the latter brings some much needed levity to the proceedings.
Black ’47 is a Western, but unlike the sun-soaked desert skies we associated with the genre, it’s largely shot in a washed out grey. There’s been some complaints about this, but anyone who’s been to the west of Ireland in the winter will recognise the drained palette. The refusal to make Ireland look like the pretty green land of tourism ads is one way Black ’47 is uncompromising in its depiction of the country. The other is the use of the Irish language. This is subtitled, but not in the usual closed captioned way we’re used to. The English words float across the screen from characters’ mouths, like speech bubbles. This probably should not work but yet it does.
Feeney’s journey is punctuated by brutality and, at times the film suffers from the hokey old trope of excellent marksmanship from our hero and poor shooting by everyone he’s up against. This is a bit of a minor quibble. Black ’47 does an excellent job of getting the reality of the Irish Famine across without ever hitting the viewer over the head with it; subtly showing us the effect of the evictions, bad weather, “souperism”, export of grain and Victorian attitudes, creating the perfect storm for the Famine to thrive. It was always about more than potatoes.
Jim Broadbent, one of the best British actors of his generation, brings his gift for simultaneous twinkly affability and icy coldness to the role of Lord Kilmichael, the landlord of the local big house who is exporting grain while his tenants starve. When Kilmichael says that someday an Irishman in Ireland will become as “rare as a Red Indian in Manhattan” it’s hard not to be shocked. One of the best scenes in the film is when Rea breaks character as his good-natured Irish trickster to rebuke Kilmichael for his attitudes.
The characters, by and large, are drawn as archetypes. This lends Black ’47 a sort of fable-like quality, reinforcing our distance from the events it portrays, to all those shades of grey brutality from 150 years ago.