BLACK ‘47 is, at its core, an Irish revenge thriller set during the Great Famine.
Martin Feeney (James Frecheville) deserts the British army to return home to Ireland, only to find out that his country is in ruin. He is met with relatives at his home who inform him that his mother died of starvation and his brother was hanged by the British. Not long after he is home, a violent altercation occurs at the house that sends Feeney on a quest for vengeance against those who wronged him and his home country.
During the film’s cold open, Hannah (Hugo Weaving), a disgraced British veteran-turned investigator, strangles a prisoner during an interrogation, for which he faces the death penalty. However, he is given an opportunity: along with a British officer named Pope and a young private named Hobson, Hannah must find and apprehend Feeney. It is not only revealed that the two served together in Afghanistan, but that Feeney saved his life.
While the foundation for BLACK ’47 seems fairly straightforward, the film offers a few unique twists. For starters, it’s hard to overlook the presentation. Whereas some of the weaker period dramas come across as actors playing dress-up, BLACK ’47 seeks to immerse the viewer in a very specific time and place. The performances not only help to sell the setting, but also the scenery that depicts a bleak and underrepresented chapter in history. Both indoor and outdoor scenes are complemented with realistic and atmospheric lighting, whether it’s the bitter darkness outside or the candle-lit interiors.
The tension between the Irish citizens and the British is one of the more compelling threads featured in the narrative. There are several scenes and circumstances that question the characters’ motivations. While the film is rich with drama and themes to explore, the characters themselves are somewhat of a mixed bag. While it was refreshing to find that Hannah doesn’t simply fall under the stereotype of a disgraced officer, it’s not always easy to believe why he acts the way he does, especially in the film’s second half. Feeney is portrayed as a mysterious type, but sometimes comes across more as underdeveloped. It is hard to deny, however, that his brooding on-screen presence added to my overall enjoyment of the film.
It’s also a film that seems excited at times to cross into genre territory. Make no mistake, this is a period drama, but it does include the fundamentals of a gritty action film as well as some Western influence. While these sequences are fairly well choreographed, it’s difficult to recommend this as an “action movie,” as these scenes are few and far between and may not please certain fans of the genre. I’m in no way saying that I wish the film took a more exploitative approach, but it’s worth noting that these moments take a backseat to the core drama.
This brings me to my main complaint with BLACK ’47. As a revenge thriller, there isn’t enough for it to be particularly thrilling. This would’ve been fine if it could have more fully delivered on its characters and narrative, but it occasionally feels as if the film is holding back. While the political and socioeconomic concepts are interesting, they aren’t as fleshed out as I would’ve liked.
BLACK ’47, as a whole, manages to succeed in many aspects. The acting is solid, the concept is strong, and the presentation is well executed. It just doesn’t excel in one area to truly make it stand out. The story kept me engaged as to who may double cross who at any point, but considering the lofty ambitions of its unique setting, I couldn’t help but feel as if it would’ve served as a stronger platform for a high-budget TV series.
I do believe that it’s a movie that may find an audience. For me, it just didn’t quite juggle all of its winning ideas as successfully as I would’ve liked.
BLACK ’47 held its world premiere at Berlin Film Festival in 2016. It was released on September 28, 2018 in the United States and distributed by IFC Films. It was released on the same date in the UK and distributed by Altitude Film Distribution and StudioCanal UK.