The first feature film set in Ireland during the Great Famine of the 1840s, Lance Daly’s Black 47 mines a rich vein of untapped history. But its portrait of these bleak times too frequently unfolds through the stoic, implacable gaze of its hero, Feeney (James Frecheville), an Irishman who returns home after years abroad in service of the British army to discover that his beloved country is fighting off starvation and a brutal epidemic of evictions. While early sequences are marked by an admirable attention to period detail that help to explicate the numerous causes of the famine, particularly those stemming from the stifling oppression by the British, Daly’s interests dramatically shift from the political to the personal. As the historical specificity embedded in the film’s more expansive opening act is abandoned, the more predictable, archetypal trappings of a revenge narrative begin to take hold.
The horrors of British colonial rule loom large over the film’s events as Feeney learns of his mother’s recent death from starvation his brother’s execution following an exceptionally shady trial led by a boorish English judge. By the time he finds other relatives frozen to death after being unfairly evicted due to a tax law put in place by the Brits, Feeney is hellbent on getting justice by any means necessary. But the man’s outrage, while obviously justified, becomes Black 47‘s sole focus, increasingly clouding historical context with the innate tunnel vision that drives nearly all quests for personal vengeance.
After a string of bloody encounters where Feeney offs the aforementioned judge—and then a number of corrupt policemen, landowners, and English army officers who sternly impose and enforce the barbarous British laws—he lands squarely in the crosshairs of his former officer, Hannah (Hugo Weaving). Tasked with this manhunt as a way of repairing his reputation after strangling a prisoner during an interrogation, Hannah is joined by Captain Pope (Freddie Fox), a pompous bigot who never misses the opportunity to express his disdain for the Irish. Pope is a virtual clone of the seething yet cowardly caricature often found in historical dramas, though Hannah also remains a callous brute, and the only sign of his humanity is the briefest of hints at the wartime trauma that led to his excessively violent tendencies.
As the sluggishly staged search for Feeney progresses, Daly leans even heavier on broad characterizations, painting literally every British character in the film, including a wealthy landowner played by Jim Broadbent, as arrogant, violent, and deeply prejudiced. Although Daly’s contempt for the Brits is certainly understandable, his rage, much like Feeney’s, remains so single-minded in purpose that Black 47 is drained of all its potential complexity. And what begins as a relatively astute examination of an under-represented historical era devolves into a hollow tale of vengeance led by a cipher of a protagonist whose mainly defined by his tendency toward martyrdom.