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Non-Review Review: Black ’47

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

Black ’47 is a powerful piece of pulp storytelling, a bold and daring window into an under-served chapter of Irish history.

Directed by Lance Daly, working from a story derived by a variety of writers, Black ’47 is essentially a western set against the background of the Irish Famine. Of course, the reality is much more nuanced than that simple description would suggest, but it provides a suitable starting point for discussion. Indeed, all the genre elements are in place; a soldier returns home from war to discover the horrors that have befallen his family, and decides that there shall be no justice on earth save for that which he might exact by his own hand.

Black ’47 is a very sparse and rugged film. It would be a surprise if the nominal lead character, Feeney, speaks more than one hundred words. Indeed, at one point he explicitly rejects the English language as a tool of communication. The landscape of the film is rough and cold, the audience feeling the chill that runs through the film and almost smelling the decay in the air. Black ’47 reflects its rough and wild settings, and the characters who have been shaped and moulded by those surroundings.

Black ’47 is an effective piece of storytelling.

The Irish Famine is a historical event of such magnitude that is almost difficult to process the sheer scale of the horror. It is estimated that one eighth of the population of Ireland died during the tragedy, and that another eighth were driven to emigrate. The Irish Famine is an event that robbed the island of Ireland of one quarter of its population, shattering families and creating a nation that was scattered to the wind. Indeed, it should be noted that population of the island has never fully recovered from that catastrophic loss.

In some ways, the effects linger. There are a number of memorials scattered around the country, often seeming just as eerie and uncomfortable as they should. One of the consequences of the tragedy was the creation of a vast network of Irish diaspora, of a people spread across the globe and connection to one another by the ties to a long lost homeland. It is also fair to draw a connection between the horrors suffered by the Irish population and the renewed push for independence in the decades that followed.

However, the Irish Famine has never truly been explored in Irish popular culture in the way that other nations has explored and excavated their own national tragedies. There are a variety of possible reasons for this. Perhaps Ireland has enough formative experiences that the Irish Famine seems less urgent than documenting the journey to independence or the details of twentieth century history. Perhaps Ireland is still developing a film industry with enough financial clout to mount an impressive and effective period piece on the right scale. Perhaps it is still too uncomfortable to talk about.

Nevertheless, Black ’47 finds itself tasked with opening a window on a national tragedy, on probing a scar that still aches faintly even when the audience doesn’t realise this. The enormity of the tragedy is almost too much to contemplate, and so Black ’47 explores it through the prism of genre. The western seems a suitable vehicle for such an exploration, although not the only approach that Black ’47 takes to its subject matter. There are times when Black ’47 feels like something approaching a horror film.

There is something apocalyptic about the west of Ireland as depicted in Black ’47. Starved and forsaken, the inhabitants of the region shuffle and wail. They sit at the side of the road waiting to die, or mass silently at the gates of the landed class in the hope that they might receive some discarded scraps. Many do not speak English. Their skin is pale and blotchy. One character describes how the stench of death is in the air, how the land is so rotten that its fruits crumble to ash in the hands of the inhabitants. With its greys and whites, Black ’47 occasionally feels like a period piece zombie film.

Nevertheless, the film works best as a western, cannily appropriating the language and conventions of the genre to explore a horrific chapter of Irish history. After all, the familiar tropes and themes of the western would seem to apply perfectly to the situation at hand: of the ravages of colonisation; of a people shaped and broken by their harsh environment; of soldiers who return from war to discover themselves embroiled in a more fundamental struggle; of justice that arrives not by divine will but by mortal hand, if at all.

There is something very archetypal about Black ’47, which serves the movie well. Given the emphasis that the film places on the importance of the Irish language, it is no coincidence that the lead character is named “Feeney.” The name is the anglicised form of “Ó Fiannaidhe”, which is rooted in the word “Fiann.” This word means “soldier” or “warrior”, which provides the audience with everything that they need to know about the stoic and (mostly) silent protagonist. It is also tied to Irish nationalism, with the country adopting “Amhrán na bhFiann” as its anthem on independence.

However, what is most interesting about Black ’47 is the way in which it shifts the conventions of its genre to illuminate its setting and surroundings. The use of the language of the western serves as a canny narrative tool, with subtle variations and modifications hinting at the nuances and the particulars of this specific time and place. A lot of this is down to the superb production design, with Lance Daly having attracted a rich array of talent both in front of and behind the camera.

Of particular note is the work of cinematographer Declan Quinn. Quinn shrewdly substitutes the deep golds associated with westerns for a deathly grey pallour. Black ’47 is full of whites and greys, to the point that the audience might even feel the same chill as the characters. The rich reds associated with the vast desert frontiers of western genre are replaced with sickly greens of the unforgiving Irish countryside, underscoring the difference between how the Irish and the Americans view their land.

In conventional westerns, the American frontier is a wilderness that offers untold riches to those with the strength of will to tame it. It can be harsh and cruel, but it is also limitless. It is an entire nation offered to the settlers, a sign of providence and manifest destiny. In contrast, the land in Ireland only takes from its inhabitants. The land takes their dead, who are so plentiful that they are buried without coffins. It takes their food, turning their potatoes to rotting death. It takes their homes, usurped by foreign colonisers who spare little thought for the suffering of their subjects.

Indeed, the landscape in Black ’47 is decidedly unforgiving. When one character reveals that they survived the previous winter by hiding in a hole in the ground, it merely seems like they crawled into their own grave. The land offers its inhabitants only death. One of the film’s early establishing shots reveals that the land cannot even be trusted to offer the dead a decent resting place, surrendering the bones of the interred just as readily as it offers death in the form the corrupted potato crop.

The only heavily saturated colours in Black ’47 are the red of blood and uniforms and the green of fields and pastures; this is no coincidence. In the world of Black ’47, these two colour schemes are linked. Death makes its mark in the snow white skin of a family huddling in a harsh winter landscape, in the haunted grey pallour of a nation slowly starving to death, in the sickly greens of a land that seems to have turned on its inhabitant, in the bright reds worn by the colonising force. No matter what colour it wears, death is still death.

In terms of how Black ’47 appropriates the conventions of the western only to twist them in service of its unique setting, Brian Byrne’s score deserves particular attention. There are times when the soundscape of Black ’47 evokes that of a classic western; the familiar drum and string section as an unlikely band of travellers cross a rugged landscape. However, this soundtrack inevitably gives way to something more recognisably Irish, the weeping and wailing of a land scarred by unimaginable tragedy.

Black ’47 is a formidable and impressive piece of work.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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