Director: Lance Daly.
Starring. Hugo Weaving, James Frecheville, Stephen Rea, Freddie Fox, Barry Keogham, Sarah Greene. USA. 1h 40m.
This brilliantly dark poetic revenge flick from the bleakest part of Irish history is rough but so intense. Based on the Irish Language short called An Ranger by PJ Dillon and Pierce Ryan, this lengthy retelling is focused on an Irish Ranger returning home from war and finding his homeland is very different to how he left it.
Starting on another tangent, the film opens with Hanna (Weaving) losing his temper with a prisoner, a member of the Young Irelander movement, while losing his temper he strangles the man he sips from his canteen while another guard realises Hannah has killed the prisoner.
Meanwhile Martin Feeney (Frechville) a former Connaught Ranger arrives in Connemara, west Ireland in 1847, the worst part of the Great Famine, he finds family home hollowed out and filled with pigs, he learns that his mother died from starvation and his brother was hanged after stabbing a bailiff during the family’s evection. Feeney stays with his brothers widow (Greene) who are squatting in one of the few remaining houses. Soon the landlord arrives to evict the family, killing Feeney’s nephew and destroying the home. Feeney is arrested but managed to kill his captors and destroy the barracks and re returns to find his sister in law and her daughter dead from exposure. This sparks something dark inside of Feeney and he begins to seek a tortuous bloody revenge on the men who have wronged him.
The destruction of the barracks draws attention from the British Authorities and turns Feeny into an outlaw. An arrogant British officer called Pope (Fox) is assigned to apprehend him and frees the dishonored Hannah to help him, as he’s learned that he served with Feeney in Afghanistan and believes Hannah can give him the upper hand, they are joined by Hobson (Keoghan) an inexperience and idealistic lad from England and eventually the hire Connelly (Rea) as a translator and local guide, and at times a voice of Irish reason and signer of Gaelic ballads.
This commanding feature has so much in common with the earlier classic First Blood (1982), a soldier returning home to find things have changed dramatically, loved ones have passed away, he’s then treated badly by the authorities and slowly he starts to get some cold revenge. But there’s something sadistically poetic about Feeney, the burly Irishman fresh from war and straight into a land wrecked with suffering and misery has very little to live for, and his actions seem so very extreme Cutting of heads and exchanging them with animal heads, not a lot of this particular violence is shown in the movie but the aftermath of these Saw like torture games are depicted. But the film does have levels of violence and death is at every turn, but the grittier scenes are left to the imagination.
While Feeney travels around bleak West Ireland he’s followed by the pompous Poe and loose cannon, Hannah, they are constantly struggling to catch up with him let alone stop him. Meanwhile the men plod along discovering Feeney’s spoils of war, but through the blood trail they struggle to take in the state of the country, the class divide and attitudes of the ruling class and treatment of the Irish people even begins to grate on their nerves, and takes a particularly harsh tolls on the young Hobson who has a poignant stand off to try and get some food to the starving people that surround a stately home looking for scraps.
While Hugo Weaving is the star of this dark drama, his character is quite like a recovering drunk version of Abberline from the Wolfman (2010), There’s a moment where Hannah cannot be controlled anymore and his blind rages get the better of him and he find himself facing a firing squad, this is when the tables start to turn and the film takes on another twist, not that this epic cat and mouse chase needed more layers but it’s very interesting to see more plot unfold to the point where an interesting choice has to be made..
The Blight was a dark era for Ireland and even darker for England who seemed to try and use the situation to their advantage, offering to feed starving people for their loyalty is was another step in the struggle to make the Irish less Irish. Black 47, named after the year 1847, which saw the biggest decrease in the Irish population due to emigration and starvation, seemed to promise a decent history lesson but instead a tense period action thriller, with layers of blood grit and determination, more of a Period James Bond. It would have been perfect to have kept it all in the native tongue as it seems to all be about the fight against the unjust British, but there is a large amount in Irish with subtitles. For the first feature set in Ireland of the time, the director, Lance Daly has set a high bar but hopefully more will feel comfortable to come forwards with more projects now that the ice has been broken, but please no zombie films..
R – First Blood (1982),
L – Return from War, Irish Films A-Z, Sweet Dark Revenge.