Ruairí McCann on Lance Daly’s ‘Black ’47’ (2018)
Putting history on the screen is a tricky proposition for a country as small as Ireland. The cost of reanimating an historical time is often too high for a film industry framework that is barebones at best. Black ’47, then, came as welcome news, as it proffered the rare chance to explore and view a continent that, for cinema, was previously undiscovered.
For Black ’47 is the first movie to be set during The Great Famine that devastated mid-19th century Ireland. It follows Martin Feeney (James Frecheville) a Connaught ranger who deserts his post in India so that he may return to his family in a homeland gripped of famine. Their starvation is aided and abetted by the British state along with the Irish in their employ, as they continue to tax and evict with no relent or mercy. Sent over the edge by this swelling injustice, Feeney goes on a rampage, picking off those responsible one by one, with the intention of making his way to the top of the proverbial ladder — the local estate owner, Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent). The authorities, worried that he will incite another rebellion, send a hunting party on his trail, fronted by Feeney’s disillusioned ex-comrade, Hannah (played by Hugo Weaving, giving perhaps the best performance as a hangdog for whom breathing is barely worth the effort).
Black ‘47 features a few base elements that are almost automatically appreciable, regardless of how they are employed, because if the same production was under the aegis of another nation, they would either be toned down or not there at all. This includes the extensive use of Irish; the presence, since the setting is Connemara, of Galway accents both soft and strong and even, to a lesser extent, the movie’s nationalist bent. In addition, there is invention in how director Lance Daly films a landscape that has been much fetishised in a myriad of moving image forms. From tourism ads to the decades’ worth of Hollywood productions (How Green Was My Valley) through which the diaspora and their progeny have spilled their nostalgia into a cinematic mould. My country here is not a patchwork of green fields but a blasted heath. Coddled by hills and laced with rivulet-like lonely tracks and little stone cottages that Daly mostly renders in a near texture-less greyscale or a dulled green morass. Yet the movie’s front half is peppered with a striking use of hand-made looking matte paintings, like something out of the state approved 30s realist tradition, turned terminal.
Outside of these small touches, Daly fatally pulls his punches in making a movie that is about a vast suffering that also operates as a revenge western. In other words, a movie about a wrenching national trauma told through a generic prism that is usually unsparingly tough-minded, demands a harder edge. But Daly, a filmmaker who has up to now largely stayed away from depicting a country in its death throes and has been on the edge of but never in the realm of genre, is unwilling or unable to give it. Instead, he litters the roadside with pasty extras whose stock beggarly poses and theatrical rags reduce the visceral shock of so much death. Daly self-sabotages critical moments, such as when Feeney takes shelter in the cottage that houses the frozen corpses of his sister-in-law and niece. The spine of the horror of this scene is that Feeney has reached a tipping point; his life has been so choked through with death that instead of being repulsed he can only sit in the cold and stand the company of his dead loved ones.
Frecheville has the necessary comportment to express this abyss, with spikes of pain dredging up a pair of doll’s eyes from his sea of ginger scruff. Yet instead of emphasising his performance and letting the banal morbidity linger, the corpses are revealed with a corny horror movie musical sting and the scene is cut short before the void of feeling can register. His futzing extends to the action as well, which is initially promising, with Feeney’s revenge starting with an escape from police custody. A melee that is staged and framed decisively, with an action per shot — starting with a knife kicked into a constable’s face and ending with a body dropping after a deafening musket shot — before effectively switching to a single take for the final flurry of violence. Yet apart from a mid-point standoff whose geography Daly confuses or the final mass skirmish, both Daly and Feeney prefer to do their killing off screen with diminishing inventiveness.
This squeamishness extends to Feeney’s character overall. He’s a rebel with a cause who also fits the designation of a vigilante. This is an archetype which often entails dealing up front with the troubling fault lines and contradictions in an individual’s relationship to society’s law and order. But director Daly mostly skips over the morality of Feeney’s mission, even within the context of a film that is broadly on his side. For he heralds all of Feeney’s executions with that sting again. The dose of unease it is meant to inject in an audience, which also pushes them away, turns Feeney into a monster straight from a slasher movie. A cypher with no interiority or even a sense that it has been lost. While his victims, whose self-evident villainy has been beefed up till they’re turned into handy receptacles of a nation’s ire, are by contrast made sympathetic, whiplash fast, without the grounding of anything resembling character.
This suggests a filmmaker who is out to deliberately embody his movie’s potential ethical contradictions. Instead, he voices a simple, agreeable nationalism in didactic scenes of point-scoring whataboutery — that the British ruling class is cruel and uncaring, that their hegemony should be overturned. All the while he, for his own comfort, and presumably ours, distances himself from Feeney’s actions which are akin to the violence that underpinned, and is inextricable from, centuries of attempted liberation that lead right up to and include Ireland’s eventual independence.
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