After more than 150 years of waiting, we finally have a bonafide Western set during the Irish Potato Famine. Trading Monument Valley for miles of pestilent farmland, and six-shooters for jerry-rigged muskets that can only fire one bullet at a time, director Lance Daly has reached back into one of the darkest chapters of his country’s history and found it to be a ripe setting for an impressively grim oater (or “spud?”) about the cost of pyrrhic victories and the virtues of running away from unwinnable fights. While the script is far too spotty and unfocused for the film to be anything more than the sum of its parts, the setting — and the set-pieces that Daly creates from it — is enough to prevent this unlikely genre mash from being a blight of its own.
Context can be hard to come by in “Black 47,” but the basic premise gets you pretty far: It’s 1847, Ireland is starving to death, and the land-owning class — mostly a bunch of absent Englishmen who are sending their profits back home — don’t seem all that upset about it. When the great Jim Broadbent shows up as a mutton-chopped British lord, the first thing he says is that the poor tax makes it cheaper for him to evict indigenous farmers than it does to keep them put. Besides, the natives are starting to get restless, and they refuse to stop speaking in Gaelic.
So when Martin Feeney (a blank and bearded James Frecheville) comes back after deserting the fight in Afghanistan, he isn’t in store for much of a homecoming: His parents are dead, his brother was hanged, and his sister-in-law is living in squalor with her kids. His first thought is to take them all to America — emigration was all the rage back then — but that plan goes up in smoke when English constables murder the lot of them. With nothing left to lose, Martin goes full vigilante, kickstarting a movie that feels like watching “The Outlaw Josey Wales” superimposed over “The Secret of Kells.”
Or not. The truth is that it looks more like “The Outlaw Josey Wales” after it’s been sucked dry of all its color. Daly, whose previous work errs closer to the realm of romantic-comedies, paints 19th century Ireland as a frigid hellscape so bleak that even Dante Alighieri would probably tell him to lighten up. Not that the film’s depiction feels unrealistic, only that this story is draped against a backdrop that makes you realize how good the townsfolk in the Wild West actually had it. The skies are always gray. The crops reek of death. The people have to suffer through interminable church sermons just to get a bowl of soup. And when the government wants your head, they send Hugo Weaving to collect it.
A fellow vet so violent that he recently killed a man he was just supposed to be questioning, Hannah is forced to capture Martin’s bounty just to avoid jail time. Decked out in black and sporting a mythic quality, Hannah is made to look like a Lee Van Cleef type, but he’s a bit more sympathetic than he seems (these days he and Martin might be diagnosed with PTSD), and he has a soft spot for the guy he’s chasing. In fact, Hannah’s not even the toughest guy in his posse — that honor belongs to a kid named Pope (Freddie Fox), a towhead Brit who bears a passing resemblance to Mia Wasikowska and takes his mission very seriously. They’re joined by a clever fool (Stephen Rea) and a naive young farmhand played by “Dunkirk” breakout Barry Keoghan (who finds himself in a similar role here).
It’s interesting how Daly cuts between the hunted and the hunter, increasingly eschewing Martin in favor of Hannah until the fugitive Irishman seems less like a person than he does an elemental force of nature, bluntly representative of the subjugation that his people have suffered. Martin gets the action scenes — all of which are shot with the dual-wielding inventiveness of vintage John Woo, and cut together with the lucid choreography that’s so desperately missing from most Hollywood movies — but Hannah gets all of the character shadings and clever lines.
He becomes the story’s real hero, and he’s a good one, but the film never fully engages with his plight. We’re left wondering about his time in the war and his relationship with the country he left, his moral awakening from Agent Smith to Neo failing to land with the force that it should. The movie waits too long to make him the center of attention. So long, in fact, that it starts to seem as though Daly uses so many zoom shots because his camera is actively searching for the right subject, and not because they’re a casual stylistic throwback to the Westerns that made “Black 47” possible in the first place.
Daly never finds what he’s looking for — or he does, but it slips away. Aside from the brilliant gunplay, the film is at its most engaging when it finds its characters wrestling with national identity, and contemplating the decision to forfeit it in favor of a better life somewhere else. “Men don’t always flee out of cowardice,” Hannah says. “Sometimes they do it because they’re angry.” It’s implied there are other reasons as well, but the script is too busy staging a small-scale revolution to notice. By the time it ends on a note of intimate ambiguity, it’s hard not to wish that “Black 47” had expressed more shades of gray. It’s enough to sustain us, while also inspiring hope that next year’s crop of potato Westerns will be more satisfying.
“Black 47” premiered at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking American distribution.