In an article published almost two years ago, Irish Times journalist Derek Scally said: “Berlin has the potential to be a perfect global Irish laboratory”. As such, it seemed only right that an Irish film about the Great Famine would premiere tonight at Germany’s highly regarded Berlinale festival.
Set in 1847, as shown in the title, the story begins with the return of a soldier in his native Ireland. The main protagonist, Feeney, a deserter from the British army in India, makes it back to Connemara, only to find out that his family has starved to death in an Ireland struck by the potato blight, the Great Famine, and the British occupation.
Straddling through Connemara, hunted by ruthless Captain Pope and his dismissed superior in India Captain Hannah, Feeney witnesses further exactions from the British officials on his people. He sets for an implacable revenge, and his wrath is mighty.
Following a trail of blood and despair through an Ireland decimated by starvation and misery, the story unfolds, showing both the quest for justice of a broken man and the unfair circumstances which were some of the darkest times of the British colonization, coercion and starvation of the people of Ireland. Though a fiction, the story sheds light on the implacable cruelty inflicted upon the Irish at the time of the Great Famine, which led to more than a million deaths and caused as many people to leave their country in search for a better life.
Doing justice to a bleak side of Irish history, director Lance Daly (Last days in Dublin, Kisses, The Good Doctor) brings together several genres with Black 47: historical drama, thriller, with a hint of western-style, helped by the magical cinematography of Declan Quinn (Leaving Las Vegas, In America, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee), on a story already brought to the screen in 2008 in An Ranger, a shorter and all-Irish version by screenwriters P.J. Dillon (Game of Thrones, Vikings, Penny Dreadful) and Pierce Ryan (Standby, Runners). The rhythm, the narrative and the interpretation of the film remind that of Michael Kolhaas, a 2013 film based on the eponymous novella by German author Heinrich von Kleist. Just like Kleist’s protagonist, dispossessed merchant Kolhaas in 16th century Brandenburg, deserter Feeney seeks justice where it has been flouted in 19th century Connemara. Cast as the main protagonist, Australian yet Gaelgoir* James Frecheville (Animal Kingdom, Perfect Mothers, The Drop), delivers a powerfully subdued rendition of his lone Irish ranger character, opposite
Lord Elrond *and* Agent Smith Hugo Weaving (Lord of the rings, The Matrix, Cloud Atlas) and Freddie Fox (The Three Musketeers, King Arthur). Weaving, as former soldier Hannah, is torn between his duty to the British Crown and the urge to change sides as he comes to realize the plight of the Irish, while Fox plays every bit the English baddie in its glory. As the triad play cat and mouse through Connemara’s breathtakingly beautiful landscapes, the balance of power is shifting between oppressor and oppressed. Interestingly, for (s)he who knows the Irish, things are always grand, and they would rather loose a leg than complain about anything. Perhaps this is a trait of character inherited after centuries of abuse, hence the somewhat cathartic viewing of a film that is about revenge.
Just like the long history between the Irish and the British wend on to show, there can be no happy ending for all of the protagonists in the film. Though it is a film and not a documentary, Black 47 depicts all too well the sufferings of millions in 19th century Ireland. In doing so, the poetic beauty of a story on the silver screen also conveys a historical reality: that of absurd and bleak times which, through the lonesome ranger figure, prelude that of the rebels and, with it, the prospect of an inescapable violence to rid Ireland from its settlers.
For those who love Ireland, as the final scene gives way to hope for a brighter future for another generation of Irish, the seeds for an uprising are noticeable, and Yeats’s celebrated verses from his poem Easter, 1916 come to mind: “all changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born.”
* A Gaelgoir is an Irish-speaker.
The pictures above show unmarked graves in Bantry cemetery, Co. Cork. Unmarked graves were widely used on the sites of mass graves during the Great Famine.