As Ireland suffers the worst year of the Great Famine, the sullen and troubled Hannah (Weaving) is hired by Lord Kilmichael (Broadbent) to track and kill a ranger called Feeney (Frecheville), who has been moving through Connemara hunting down those responsible for the eviction and death of his family. With the pompous English officer Pope (Freddie Fox) confident of an early capture, Hannah begins to suspect that Feeney is no hungry randomer on a rage but a trained and lethal former soldier…
'Black 47' moves like a gritty seventies western or 'The Proposition'. The visuals match the dour mood with the bleak wintry landscapes given real oomph by cinematographer Declan Quinn ('Leaving Las Vegas', 'Breakfast On Pluto'). The burned shacks, the dead bodies, the crawling hungry homeless – the famine isn’t a subject that makes it to the cinema all that often (or ever) and director Lance Daly ('Kisses', 'Life’s A Breeze') revels in the chance. The outbreaks of violence are unexpected and when things do kick off, Daly isn’t shy about getting blood on his hands.
The script, written by Pierce Ryan ('Standby') and PJ Dillon ('Vikings' and 'Game of Thrones' cinematographer), with ‘additional material’ by Eugene O’Brien ('Pure Mule', 'The Flag'), is a taut and trim affair that, while political (the famine as genocide is discussed), doesn’t overdo the anti-British statements and keeps things focused on the job at hand. Veering from Irish language to English and back again, the writers have created a real lived-in environment.
Stephen Rea brings his usual class to proceedings and while his character could be deemed inessential to developments – he offers his services to Weaving’s team as translator and guide - his gentle dressing down of Broadbent over the latter’s dismissive attitude to the woes of the Irish people is one of the film’s highlights. Frecheville and Weaving, both in Terminator mode, hold the audience’s attention; Frechville ('Animal Kingdom') is almost mute throughout, expressing what emotion he can in his deadened eyes that peer coldly out from behind that impressive beard. Sarah Greene and Moe Dunford catch the eye in smaller roles.
It doesn’t always work. The matte backgrounds draw attention to themselves and Barry Keoghan is sadly underused. Playing a young Irish-hating private on his first mission, there’s a beat or two missing if his eventual epiphany is to be earned and they are probably in some reel on the cutting room floor.
But 'Black 47' remains a stark and engaging affair throughout.