Black 47 – a review


Hugo Weaving, usually a support actor, is here quite magnificent

Seeing Black 47 stays in the memory, and as a personal reaction, makes me furious no one will back a film of the Highland Clearances, no matter how the subject is treated.

This attempt to tell the harrowing tale of Ireland’s potato famine is warmly welcomed, honourable, honest, and often riveting, tripped a few times by a certain pedestrian presentation. A low budget might be the cause. Sometimes a paucity of funds boosts imaginative solutions, such as when Orson Welles filmed parts of Othello (1951) in a Turkish bath house because the airline had lost all the costumes. Sometimes not.

In 1937, Liam O’Flaherty dedicated his epic novel, Famine, to the Irish-American film-maker John Ford. The two men had collaborated on The Informer (1935). O’Flaherty spent years trying to cajole Ford into adapting his story of the great hunger. Ford never got around to it. Here we are in 2018 seeing the subject on screen. There is a lesson here for countries not in charge of their own culture.

Black 47 damn well should make the so-called ‘British’ film industry thoroughly guilty of suppressing Scotland’s tales of its famines that led to the Act of Union, and rejecting filming the many dramas that swell the decades of our Highland Clearances.

The excuse of producers for avoiding our history is easy to predict: Stories about mass starvation don’t put bums on seats. That is the myth. There are ways to make almost any subject palabale to a degree. Remove Clint Eastwood from The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976) and what you’re left with is a grim story of grinding poverty, violence and revenge, outlaws and all.

I should add that almost all the films made of Scottish historical events, from A Sense of Freedom to Rob Roy, are moulded in the genre of an American western. Black 47 is a revenge in the tradition of a Hollywood western. There’s men on horseback with guns and rifles.

“A disease caused potato blight but the English caused the famine”, says one character. You nod knowing the history of Scotland is littered with similar calamities of English callowness and indifference.

Set in Ireland during the Great Famine, the drama follows an Irish Ranger home from fighting for the British Army abroad. We learn he abandoned his post to reunite with his family. That makes him a wanted man. Despite or perhaps because of experiencing the horrors of war, the violent deaths and mutilations, he’s shocked by the famine’s destruction of his homeland, his family brutalised.

“May’be we might place more value on beauty if we could eat it”, says Stephen Rea’s Conneely  (‘Conneely’ is correct spelling.) The year is 1847- ’47’ the numeral of the title. Ireland’s Great Famine is approaching its worst devastation when hundreds of thousands of people were left to fend for themselves, and thousands died.

Conneely makes his barbed observation in response to an English landlord’s callous remark about how the ragged and starving locals show no appreciation for the stark grandeur of the Connemara landscape.

Readers will have encountered that sentiment made by tourists looking at a Clearance ravished glen without realising the anguish and torment that  took place there, the rickle of an abandoned village still visible.


Writer-Director Lance Daly puts James Frecheville through the scene to be shot

The screenplay is largely fictional. It has to be. Like our Highland Clearances there is a paucity of literature on record of arguments or debates of who did what to whom, and why. The poor can’t afford a lawyer. Catastrophic crop failure and a deliberate program of socio-economic deprivation left people too busy surviving to record their experiences.

A lot of the film is spoken in Irish Gaelic, another downer for any investor hoping for big bucks return and cinemagoers hoping to avoid exercising their brain. It works beautifully, as does Brian Byrne’s dark toned, brooding score of traditional uilleann pipes that avoids any sense of watching Darby O’Gill and the Little People.

Together with  Declan Quinn’s unflashy camera work, those elements coalesce into a story of barbaric British rule getting its comeuppance, one head at a time.


A familiar image of the poor and the homeless at the gates

The uncomplicated narrative begins as Feeney, (a charismatic James Frecheville) returns to the West of Ireland having deserted from the British military. He discovers his family home has been “tumbled”, that is, rendered uninhabitable, his mother dead, and his brother hanged for stabbing a bailiff.

When that tragedy repeats itself to another homestead right in front of Feeney’s eyes, he embarks on a journey of revenge against officials, landowners, and the collaborators responsible. It reminded me that unlike the Scots, the Irish are reluctant to right wrongs by the laborious, time lapse method of the ballot box.

Feeny’s killings – officials call them murders, are full of irony as each villain meets his end. There are decapitations, strangulations and a suffocation-in-grain as he makes his way to the boss of bosses, Lord Kilmichael, played with brilliant animus by the normally genial Jim Broadbent, who looks every inch the autocratic aristocrat. From his illustrious career as a character actor – with that face what else could he be? – Broadbent has left us an unequalled repertoire of pompous Englishmen of various sorts. I wish he’d been given  more empathy than he shows even considering his sparse dialogue. His remarks err too often on the brutal side, contrived to give us a downright bastard to hate.

Constructed as a western set in the Irish West, Feeney’s quest is pursued by the standard cowboy posse. The leader is Captain Pope, (Freddie Fox), a man you’d like to punch in the eye yourself, and immature, infantile Private Hobson, (Barry Keoghan). Hobson is given an implausible Road to Damascus moment but the repercussion of it is very plausible.

They’re accompanied by the never less that excellent in world weary parts Stephen Rea playing Conneely, an ambivalent translator and guide. He’ll do anything for the King’s shilling and a glass of port. I’ve met many a Scot infected by the same subservience.


The cinematography avoids the superficially picturesque most of the time

Australian-born Hugo Weaving steals the limelight. (Denouncers of an Australian playing William Wallace take note.) His violent, embittered Hannah is the reluctant bounty hunter. His character once served alongside Feeney as a ranger in Afghanistan, his latter career as a policeman got him sentenced to death for killing a suspect in custody, a fate he can avoid if he brings in Feeney.

The moral dilemma starts right there – do the bidding of the British state and get off Scot-free. Weaving is superb, delivering his lines like a man wading through a swamp, a hell of his own making, trying to flee from eternal damnation.

We watch the procession of humanity wind its way to its epiphany, its bloody inevitable end, and wonder why it took 170 years to put the Famine on the screen.

“It’s hard to find a way in,” Lance Daly says in an interview. “It’s hard to find a story you can tell that the audience can bear sitting through. It’s impossible to portray the suffering. It’s so horrific. So we did an awful lot of historical research. We had a lot of the leading historians on the Famine on speed-dial. We’d call them every day.”

At times the action is theatrical, as if on a proscenium arch facing the audience, addressed-to-camera. Some faked backgrounds look decidedly iffy. Nevertheless, Black 47 punches you repeatedly in the solar plexus. My Irish mother would never have met my Sicilian father had her father not fled to Scotland, ergo, you, dear reader, wouldn’t be reading this review.

I am convinced more than ever that an independent Scotland must lay as a priority the public possession of our land. All of it. Every mountain, every glen, peat bog and estate.

I guarantee, if you don’t leave the cinema in an angry state of mind, you have a heart of stone, or are an unreconstructed colonial.

  • Star Rating:  Three-and-a-half stars 
  • Cast: Hugo Weaving, James Frecheville, Stephen Rea, Freddie Fox, Barry Keoghan
  • Director: Lance Daly
  • Writer: Lance Daly from a story by PJ Dillon
  • Cinematographer: Declan Quinn
  • Composer: Brian Byrne
  • Rating: 15 (English, Irish dialogue)
  • Duration: 1 hours 40 minutes
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?
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8 Responses to Black 47 – a review

  1. FlikeNoir says:

    I can highly recommend Donald MacLeod’s ‘Gloomy Memories’ for a comprehensive run-down of the Highland Clearances as they occurred in the Sutherland region which contains pretty succinct coverage on “who did what to whom, and why.” Mr MacLeod was a contemporary witness and victim of the Highland Clearances who recorded his, and his neighbour’s, experiences in a series of letters to a sympathising Edinburgh newspaper.

    It makes for a difficult, and pretty emotional, read. The resources he’s included form a really complete picture. The 1892 edition can be found here –

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    Duly ordered from Amazon in hard copy. Thanks, Flike. 🙂

  3. FlikeNoir says:

    Good luck love. I read it, and then did so again in order to type it up for the page. My husband and his father, however, didn’t make it much farther than about quarter of the way through. Alex says the descriptions of how the people were treated made him see red. Every couple of pages he’d need to put it down and play a game on his phone to calm down some. I find it’s better just to batter on through as it contains so much eye-opening information .

  4. Excellent read, GB. Colourful and active review, easy to follow.
    ‘happily avoids any sense of watching Darby O’Gill and the Little People’.. Ha, yes – or ‘The Quiet Man’ (1952) etc. I’m thinking famine would be too dark a subject for the likes of John Ford, and Francis Ford Coppola was still cutting his teeth on Finian’s Rainbow in 1968 and didn’t commence work on The Godfather until 1972. It’s been a long time since, but Black 47’s appearance is timely; another portrayal of the British that a current beleaguered Cabinet could do without. I’m sure the Union Jack promo guys will squirm every time a historical work is produced that further marks them out as brutal and thoroughly heartless.

    I saw Hugo Weaving in ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ and said afterwards that he was the most watchable screen actor of our generation (at least, between him and Matthew McConaughey) and your review confirms this. I love this guy’s work.
    I’ll watch the movie at a later date when most of the scenes you describe here have faded from memory, especially the one where Feeney’s horse suddenly transforms into a banshee..

  5. Grouse Beater says:

    Comments welcomed for their informative references. Thank you. 🙂

  6. hettyforindy says:

    I had never heard of the highland clearances at all before coming to live in Scotland 30 years ago.
    I happened across Ian Cricton Smith’s, ‘Consider The Lilies’, and was shocked. A short book, but it certainly opened my eyes. There is a short film on Truly ScottishTV History section, scroll to number 8, I think possibly even made by the BBC many years ago, dramatised.

    Oh how the Britnats have done a good job on Scotland, by their pretense in portraying this cesspit of a union, so called, as somehow equal. It never was, is not now and never will be.

    I had family visit us recently, from Australia. Politics came up, they see Scotland as another region of England and the situation of inequality akin to their federal state, where some areas are more equal than others etc. I gave up trying to tell them we are not in a federal situation, and that Scotland is a nation, if not a country in fact.

  7. Grouse Beater says:

    You’d think anybody who’d migrated to Australia or were family of parents there would understand the difference between Scotland and England.

  8. FlikeNoir says:

    Could I recommend another book ye have a wee look at?

    We did the publishing thing & here it is fully illustrated by our own artist, and cover artist for this month’s iScot Magazin, 5th Anniversary edition, Alex.

    Paperback version –

    Ofc if, like myself when it comes to contemporary prints, ye prefer a Kindle version, grab your’s here –

    There are links throughout to take you to the associated webpages.

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