Mud and misery are the backdrops of the pulpy, period revenge drama Black ’47. Set in Ireland during the potato famine of the 1840s — a time when a quarter of the country’s god-forsaken population either emigrated or died of fever and starvation — director Lance Daly’s film tells the story of an Irish soldier (James Frecheville) who deserts from the British army in Afghanistan and returns home only to find hardship, death, and injustice. The peace and family that he’s longed to see have become casualties of a harsh occupation.
A Breughel-like sea of dirt-caked faces and doomed souls incongruously share the screen with beautiful pastoral vistas. Equally incongruous is the film’s tone, which starts off as a historical drama about class oppression and quickly upshifts into a bloody odyssey of brutal payback – Billy Jack Goes to the Emerald Isle. With his haunted, thousand-yard stare and bushy red beard, Frecheville’s Martin resembles one of those illuminated Russian icons of Jesus on the cross. As he’s pursued by a disgraced loyalist bounty hunter (The Matrix’s Hugo Weaving) with whom he shares a past connection, the actor manages to say a lot without saying much. His machete, musket, and bare knuckles do most of his talking for him.
Despite its Irish setting, Black ’47 feels more than anything like an American Western, what with its shades-of-grey morality and almost Biblical quest for payback. Like Clint Eastwood’s Bill Munny in Unforgivenor John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Martin is a silent avenger pushed to do things he doesn’t want to do but also can’t ignore. He’s seen too much killing, but too far down a certain path to turn back. Daly’s excellent supporting cast (Stephen Rea, Jim Broadbent, Barry Keoghan) keep the movie’s bleaker stretches interesting. Still, the film really jolts to life in its plentiful spasms of violence, when all of the screen’s shades of green and brown are splashed in red. B