The Great Famine is the most significant event in Irish history by some distance. It killed around a million of the eight and a half million or so people on the island of Ireland, and turned another million into refugees. The loss of population didn’t stop there either: devastated economically, mass emigration drove the island’s population down to around four and a half million by the 1920s, where it hovered for a good fifty years. It began to climb steadily from the 1970s onward, so that now, over 150 years later, we’ve just about returned to where we were after a plague wiped out a quarter of our population in less a decade.
The Famine is well-represented in literature and song, but, until last year, with the release of Black ’47, never in film. There was, some might argue, the increasingly obscure silent feature Knocknagow (1918), based on the novel of the same name, which is ostensibly set in rural Tipperary in 1848, but it only depicts evictions, not starvation. The Irish communist author Liam O’Flaherty, whose novel The Informer was adapted for screen by John Ford, wrote his novel Famine with the explicit intention it be made into a film, but it never came to pass. Stephen Rea, who stars in Black ’47, told Today FM he’d been approached about a famine movie in the nineties, but the American producers thought it was too heavy. (“How are you going to lighten it?” Rea’s agent asked, “Feed them?”) So, here we are, with Black ’47, the first film about the Great Famine.
Because the Famine looms so large in the Irish consciousness, yet is so invisible on screen, I’ve often thought about different ways the subject could be approached in a film. The Western seemed the perfect fit, the ruined Irish countryside replacing the lawless desert wastes, so I was really excited when Black ’47 was announced.
Folks, it was bad.
The big problem with Black ’47 is there is the bones of a good movie – of several good movies, in fact – buried under all its flaws. Flaws so glaring that you can see exactly how it needed just a tweak here and there to be good and it’s frustrating as hell that you can’t just reach out and fix them yourself. Black ’47 is, most of all, an extremely thin movie, with fine production and acting wasted in service of shallow characters and confused themes. Everything good about it is in its style, and when that style is so grim and dim and minimal, it’s impossible to let style win out over its lack of substance. Black ’47 just rings hollow, and it’s really annoying that such a weak film got to be the first film ever made about the Famine.
1. Two aspects of the film work for me pretty much unconditionally, and the first is its use of matte painted backgrounds. Contra Mark Kermode, who thought them cheap, I felt the matte paintings added a ton of production value. They were all beautiful, for one, but more importantly, they added to the genre trappings of the film. They evoked classic Hollywood magic and gravitas and helped get the viewer on board with the Western genre approach. No matter what else might have needed a tweak, I wouldn’t change those backgrounds for anything. I also love Brian Byrne’s score, which melds together traditional Irish music and instrumentation with Morriconesque Western twangs and dirge-like drones to build the atmosphere of the movie: Irish, Western, and depressing as hell.
2. James Frecheville and Hugo Weaving are quite good in the lead roles of Feeney and Hannah, and I’m especially impressed with the Australian Frecheville’s great accent work, in English and Irish, but their performances carry a huge risk. Their characters both speak little, and spend perhaps seventy percent of the movie glowering dead-eyed into the middle distance. That stark minimalism can work wonders in a film when it’s balanced by livelier supporting characters in contrast to the leads, but Frecheville and Weaving are given the best characters and the rest of the cast is left to struggle with the scraps of the screenplay. It’s a good cast, wasted on a bad movie, and it’s especially unfortunate that far more people have seen Barry Keoghan’s nothing performance in Black ’47 than his brilliant lead turn in American Animals.
3. Lots of positive reviews of Black ’47 note the grim, pallid cinematography, and though I’m well up for that in theory, in practice, the film lacks for contrast. The lighting is the real weak spot: super flat and too bright, it never takes full advantage of the pre-electric lighting to create dramatic shadows or anything visually interesting like that. The aesthetic could be perfect, but the execution just makes it drab. Another of last year’s bleak revenge thrillers about quiet men with bushy beards, You Were Never Really Here, shows exactly how to pull it off: it’s dim and broody and still electrifying to watch.
4. I have a lot of problems with the script, but let’s start at the start. The first act is just the film explaining over and over again what the Famine is. First, visually, by having Feeney ride through derelict fields and pass starving people on the road while the date appears on-screen. Second, stupidly, with a dull voiceover. Third, unnecessarily, by having Feeney’s sister-in-law explain the Famine to him. All you need is the visual explanation, and Feeney’s first appearance would be so much cooler if it was just him and the music, no stupid narrator vomiting exposition. It’s not just that the first act is extremely repetitive or even that each repetition is worse than the previous, but that that the repetition actively undermines what could be a brilliant expression of the script.
5. Black ’47’s overexplanation of the Famine is one of the many ways the film seems confused about how much it expects its audience to know about Irish history. The script spoonfeeds you the basics of the Famine itself like it’s sure you need the help, but then has the characters constantly mention the Ribbonmen without any elaboration. The Ribbonmen were a purported secret society of rural Catholics who violently resisted the landlord class in the 1800s, and they’re not familiar even to an Irish audience who was taught about the Famine in school, let alone an international audience who are possibly approaching the subject for the first time. Less egregiously, there’s a scene where one of the Tory villains says the Irish brought the Famine on themselves by depending almost solely on the potato, and another character responds that potatoes are the only crop that can be efficiently grown on such low acreage. At this point in the film, we have learned nothing about the political situation vis-à-vis land, so the comment comes out of nowhere and then doesn’t really fit with anything it says later about the land. The main talk about land comes from the villainous Lord Kilmichael, who explains how he evicted Irish tenants to turn their farms into grazing lands for livestock so he could make more money. But that doesn’t give any explanation for why the Irish have such small farms: the Popery Act required Catholic men to equally subdivide their land amongst their sons, leaving Irish farmers with smaller and smaller farms each generation. Without this context, the “low acreage” line is a total nonsequitur.
6. Maybe it’s just me and I’m a mad person, but I couldn’t take Black ’47 seriously at all because of the bloody subtitles. The subtitles! They’re written in the same exact white font people always use on dialogue memes and, most bafflingly of all, aren’t tethered to the bottom of the screen. There are several shots where the subtitles appeared next to someone’s face, and that’s not just a font problem, that’s a “literally replicating the aesthetic of dialogue memes in this very serious, very grim Western” problem. It looked so stupid and weird! Why couldn’t they just leave the subtitles where they belong? Also, there are lots of misspellings in them, which is pretty embarrassing.
7. Neither Feeney nor Hannah go through a coherent character arc and their relationship is too vague to be compelling. We know they served together in the British Army, and now Hannah is being forced to hunt Feeney down to get a stay of execution. But how well they know each other or what kind of relationship they have goes unsaid for most of the film. When we do finally get a hint, it suggests something very interesting, but little in the film supports the suggestion. It comes when Hannah tells Feeney why he’s been sent to kill him:
HANNAH: They can’t afford to have one of their own, someone they called a hero, turn against them.
FEENEY: They never called me a hero. Only you. I was just your faithful Mick.
That’s literally the only specific information we get about them and it’s fascinating. We already knew Hannah was celebrated in some vague sense for reasons unknown – “you’re no longer the decorated veteran, the hero of the rank and file,” his commander sneers at one point – but we’d never had any sense that Feeney was particularly noteworthy, except when Hannah describes him as dangerous. But he always does so vaguely, and in the face of others’ seeming ignorance, whereas this suggests Feeney as a part of Hannah’s legend, and it’s weird the British commanders know Hannah by rep but not Feeney.
8. Feeney’s character arc is basic and should be hard to do poorly. He’s deserted from the British Army and returned to Ireland disillusioned, we suppose, with the violence of war (since he doesn’t seem to be coming back because of the Famine). He finds his mother and brother are already dead, and it seems like he’s contemplating vengeance but too tired of brutality to follow through. Then his sister-in-law and her children are murdered by agents of their landlord with the collaboration of the police and he goes on a roaring rampage of revenge, against the police, the judge who sentenced his brother to hang, the informer who stole his mother’s land for himself, and everyone else he believes has profited from his family’s death. He also beats up some Protestants who are forcing Catholics to convert in exchange for soup. But that doesn’t alter the trajectory of his character arc, and his path of revenge continues apace, until suddenly when he decides to help the starving poor protesting at his landlord’s gates at risk to himself rather than simply finish off the landlord. It’s really annoying because there’s a scene shortly before where you could have easily set up the change of heart, when he and Hannah speak properly for the first time all movie, and Hannah explains why he was sent to kill him, as aforementioned. You just need to throw in a remark from Hannah about how revenge is so petty and what makes your loved ones so much worthier of revenge than all the other dead, etc. You get it. Feeney’s sudden taste for justice is an unearned swerve that creates the illusion of his having had a character arc, like when Ghostbusters (2016) abruptly resumed the subplot about Erin and Abby rebuilding their friendship at the end of the movie to trick the audience into thinking it was about something.
9. Hannah is just as thinly sketched, but his character arc ends in a more confused place. The dying Feeney tells Hannah to flee to America after betraying the British Army, and it seems like Hannah is going to do so, but then he decides to not follow the road to the nearest port. But while he’s rejected running away, it’s not at all clear what he’s choosing. At the start of the film, Hannah is awaiting execution for killing a witness during an interrogation he was conducting amid his pursuit of the Young Irelanders. He claims to have sympathy for their cause, but the fact that he immediately murders one of them just after saying that would suggest he was lying! So, where exactly do we think Hannah is off to here? He’s not running away, but the narrative opposite of running away is staying and fighting. What is Hannah fighting? What does he care about? We have truly no idea, so there’s no emotional heft to his choice. It would be one thing if he was about to shoot himself in the head or something, and then decided to live, that would be an arc of sorts, I suppose. He’s obviously just as messed up as Feeney about his time in the military. But he’s making the selfless turn here, and that only works if we understand what he’s putting himself on the line for. The film has no idea.
10. There are lots of nice setpieces in Black ’47, especially literally any time someone pulls out a gun and everyone rightly treats it as a serious threat. Feeney’s jailhouse massacre/escape; the shootout at Cronin’s stables; the scene where Barry Keoghan grabs a shotgun and tries to force Kilmichael’s men to let in the pleading poor at the gate. I think all those scenes are great (though they’d be even greater with proper lighting) and the bleak visual style suits them perfectly, emphasising the urgent and visceral nature of the film’s portrayal of violence. But then there’s all the rest of the film, slow-moving and quiet and so heavily populated with such thin, thin characters, rarely speaking and never saying anything of substance. I love slow-moving, quiet films, like Hostiles. I love films with broody silent heroes, like Drive. But those films bring so much more than being slow, quiet and broody, and Black ’47 just doesn’t. It’s just four or five good setpieces strung together with an hour of dull, drab dross, and way too much of that hour is just them repeating what the Famine is over and over.
11. So then, to the meat of the matter. How does Black ’47 perform as a representation of the Great Famine? When faced with an opportunity to shine an unprecedented cultural spotlight on Irish history, did this movie deliver as a work of historical fiction? Briefly: no. More specifically: Black ’47 meets you exactly where you are if you think famine is bad but have no real concept of how the Great Famine happened. It certainly paints a horrid picture of the human suffering of the starving, and it shows unscrupulous people profiting from the decay. But it has little to say about why the Great Famine happened, and it makes Feeney’s already misfired revenge narrative just that bit… empty. Many have described Black ’47 as a revenge story about the Irish vs the English, but Black ’47 is about a very personal grudge rather than a larger sense of injustice. And that’s a serious missed opportunity. Irish writer Megan Nolan, in a terrific article about British ignorance of Irish history, recounts describing Black ’47 as a story about Irish revenge against the English to a British woman. The women responded, “Revenge for what?” She wouldn’t find out by watching Black ’47.
Black ’47 does a poor job of painting a picture of the British responsibility for the Great Famine. It is, in part, about minimalism, the characters speaking little and leaving much to implication, but even more so, it’s about Black ’47’s lack of vision. Black ’47’s aesthetic is so superior to its content because it lacks the imagination to develop a coherent theory of the Famine. It only sees the Famine as a stylish period setting, something to give the film a lick of local flavour, a pinch of the specific. Black ’47 is a letdown because it doesn’t have the bandwidth to grapple with the wider social and political context of the Famine, and so it tells a story about landlords (who are certainly as worthy of villainisation as anyone), but not about the world that produced those landlords. Nothing about the government, its ideology, the social mores that led Victorian Britain to spend weeks debating about how to separate the “deserving poor” from the “undeserving poor” so only the worthy would be fed while saints and sinners alike starved to death in ditches. Our leads are traumatised, disillusioned war vets, but the movie doesn’t have the range to use that for anything but a generic “violence is bad” take. I agree that violence is bad, but maybe there’s some way we can connect a few dots here? Like, is it possible there might be threads between Feeney joining the British Army so his brother could keep their father’s farm and the British Army being the iron fist of the colonial government permitting Feeney’s mother to die of exposure? Evidently not. Black ’47 flops along from explosive setpiece to explosive setpiece, gasping and wheezing its way to a limp ending that made me feel nothing because its characters were as shallow of its historical vision.
It’s a tragic misfire and I wanted dearly to love it. But it’s embarrassing that so many people are going to have their moral understanding of the Great Famine informed in part by this weak, weak movie. The Great Famine is the most significant event in Irish history by some distance, and it deserved better than this middle-of-the-road mistake.