Nigel Watson reviews Black 47’, showing at Plymouth Arts Centre until this Thursday (tickets available here).
Fenney, a Connaught Ranger, played by James Frecheville, returning to his home town of Connemara, is shocked to find it devastated by the potato famine, starvation and disease. Making things even worse the English landowners are quick to use all the powers of the law to evict anyone who is unable to pay their rent, making them homeless and consigned to a living death before the cold, harsh conditions eventually kill them off. The only other alternatives are to emigrate to America or Liverpool. It looks like nothing less than creeping genocide.
As he discovers more about this hopeless situation Fenney takes vengeance on all those who have destroyed his own family. Using all his skills as a soldier he does this with methodical efficiency and makes his deadly punishments fit the crime. Some of these are quite grisly but fortunately, unless you like horror movies, they are not shown in explicit detail.
The authorities soon become aware of Fenney’s killing spree and in response they enlist Hannah, played by Hugo Weaving, to capture him. Hannah is a former soldier who served with Fenney and owes his life to his bravery in action. To make sure he carries out his mission he is accompanied by Pope (Freddie Fox) a young English officer and the inexperienced private Hobson (Barry Keoghan).
As they follow Fenney’s trail of destruction, private Hobson is so shocked by the degraded state of the peasants that in the end he has to take action to support them, whilst Officer Pope is disdainful of them and thinks they are the authors of their own demise. They also pick up Conneely, an Irish peasant, played by Stephen Rea, who acts as their translator and adds a touch of song and comedy to the grim situation. Like us he wants to see what happens at the end of the trail.
Hannah eventually targets the smug Lord Kilmichael, played by Jim Broadbent, who loves the Irish countryside but is disdainful of the Irish peasants who he thinks spoil the beautiful countryside. His conceits about the Irish and Irish women in particular, are bravely shot down by Conneely as they share a drink together, as Hannah lurks outside.
This Irish Famine era epic effortlessly combines elements of the Western genre and the revenge thriller. Fenney is a lone figure who rides the bleak countryside dispensing justice as he sees fit. He and Hannah, his pursuer, are men of few words, who let their weapons and fists do the talking. Yet, along with the exciting action sequences there are moments like those between Lord Kilmichael and Conneely that give more depth to understanding differing attitudes to Ireland and touches on the political and religious dimensions of the Great Famine. All-in-all an action movie that has a strong cast who bring this story to life and make you ponder the politics and consequences of warfare/oppression that are relevant to this day.