The potato famine and the systemic brutality of the British occupation of 1840s Ireland is rendered with brutal realism in Black ’47. This riveting film directed with true grit by Lance Daly tracks the vengeance quest of Feeney (a rugged and lovable James Frecheville), a ranger who has deserted his post from an Irish regiment serving the British crown in Afghanistan. When he returns home, in the midst of an emaciated Irish populace, he finds that his own mother starved to death because she refused to eat soup that would have saved her, on the condition that she renounce her Catholic faith and convert to the Church of England. In addition, Feeney’s brother was hanged for resisting the eviction of his family, in which he stabbed a bailiff.
Through the lens of cinematographer Declan Quinn, the bleak barrenness of the land forlornly underscores the ravaged conditions of the Irish folk who waste away in squalor. The camera work is Oscar-caliber.
Against this backdrop another Irish soldier for the Crown, Hannah (a weathered Hugo Weaving) reluctantly pursues Feeney. The scenes of physical violence throughout Black ’47 beguile, reminding us that actual graphic depictions of violence, when well done, are more genuinely impressive, not to mention, honest, than the special effects that rule the screen anymore.
Black ’47’s British roles are played in a way that can barely be described with any justice. These are authoritarian men of the time and of privilege. Privilege is a term thrown around willy-nilly nowadays, but these actors truly, deeply, and viscerally nail it, in the 19th century sense of the word. James Broadbent, renowned for his fuddy-duddy sorts of roles, is stunningly disdainful as Lord Kilmichael, a landowner whose regard for the peasantry is pathologically racist, though typical, accepted, expected, and forthrightly spoken in the context of his class. He relishes in his assertions about the Irish being subhuman.
Our current discourse in the U.S. has long dismissed how the European hierarchies, of which the British Crown was a part of, discriminated cruelly against particular groups in their own homelands, condemning them as inferior in bloodlines. No wonder so many desperately sought to escape to North American shores. Not to mention, sent as prisoners and exploited indentures servants. Today’s Americans have come to see “white people” in a historical terms, as a generalized mass, rather than having sprung from multiplex tribal, ethnic, and racial lines overwhelmingly interblended, which still make themselves felt and known among what we call “white Americans” today.
The other striking performance of privilege is from an icy Freddie Fox as Pope, a young officer whose contempt for the Irish in his midst is strident to chilling effect. These are personalities forged in the collective narcissism of their class.
St. Anthony Main Theatre, SE 115 Main St., Minneapolis