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Getting His Irish Up

IFC Films

Black ’47 (2018)

“Revenge is a dish best served cold” should have been the tagline for this movie. Instead, we got “In Ireland’s darkest hour, vengeance shines a light.” That doesn’t make much sense, and is pretentious to boot. But it does rather sum up precisely where “Black ’47” doesn’t quite succeed as much as it wanted to, or should have. Of course, the political moment being what it is, that doesn’t much matter.

It’s 1847 and, as the movie carefully tells instead of shows, everyone in Ireland is starving to death. Everyone except the people we see in the opening pub sequence with Hannah (Hugo Weaving), who is the kind of policeman who accidentally tortures terrorist suspects to death. While we’re puzzling over that strange and gruesome beginning, we’re introduced to Feeney (James Frecheville), a deserter from the British Army (more on which later) who is running home to his mammy all the way from India. Except his mammy is dead, and a neighbor is using his childhood home as a pigsty. Luckily his widowed sister-in-law, Ellie (Sarah Greene), and her small children are living nearby. But not for long! Cue the slaughter.

It's a messy, incoherent start. Director Lance Daly, who also cowrote the script, seems keener to establish Mr. Weaving’s star status than in introducing his story in an organic and coherent way. Later, the different strands of the plot come together, but only through the shameful wasting of Ellie. Ms. Greene’s acting skills are even more considerable since she explains a nation’s suffering in the Irish language (or Gaelic, as the Americans prefer to call it; their accents are awful, but it's a pure pleasure to hear Irish spoken on film). A conversation between her and a small daughter makes the film pass the Bechdel test, and their presence briefly allows the audience to hope that the film will rise above cliché, but alas. Mr. Frecheville does an outstanding scowl, and is very good at inventively killing every well-fed British soldier who stands in his way, but you can pretty much write the plot yourself.

All that said, “Black ’47” stays an interesting and worthwhile film due to the merry band that attempts to track Feeney down. Hannah is sprung from death row since he and Feeney know each other; Mr. Weaving is obviously very good as the jaded lawman who’s getting heartily sick of death. His team – posh career soldier Pope (Freddie Fox, who steals every scene he’s in), working-class dope Hobson (Barry Keoghan, whose star is definitely on the rise), and chancer-translator Conneely (Stephen Rea, reliable as ever) – heads into the west of Ireland to track Feeney down. The big bad is Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent), who evicted Feeney’s mother among his other evil colonizer crimes. Their acting, separately and together, saves the film. Mr. Fox does a superb job demonstrating Pope’s contempt for everyone who is unfortunate enough not to be himself, but the others are just stock characters done very, very well.

Perhaps this is a little unfair, but it’s pretty boring to see such a specific setting and time play out in such a generic fashion. Women shouldn’t always have to die pointless deaths for male motivation, and there is more than one way to get revenge. On top of that, there is more than one level of colonization that the movie could have examined. Like was naming the most English character Pope a deliberate choice, or thoughtless coincidence? At least it is made explicit that Feeney developed his fighting skills, and got his cool knife, while fighting for the British Army in Afghanistan. (The Irish-language short this film has been adapted from was called “An Ranger.”) There’s a lot that could be unpacked here, about power and privilege, the different methods of control showed on-screen and using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, but the movie prefers to ignore all those things. Instead, it focuses on hand-to-hand slaughter and the personalized beef between Feeney and Hannah. The filmmakers should have thought more broadly. By refusing to consider the bigger picture, they neatly undermine their own achievements, most amusingly when Feeney makes a dramatic speech in Irish that he’ll never sully his tongue with the English language again, a vow he keeps for about five minutes, until Hannah next shows up. I mean, come on.

It’s been a stomping great success in Ireland, of course, breaking box office records left and right. How could it not be? Issues of real estate and British interference have always been touchy subjects for us, and even more so these days, as the punishing housing situation in Dublin moves into another winter while Brexit continues to fray everyone’s nerves. The movie was released in Britain with no fanfare whatsoever, which is also pretty funny. Done right, “Black ’47” could have been another “Braveheart,” but it didn’t let its little light shine.


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