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.
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.
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.
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
- RATING CRITERIA
- 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?