Little over a year ago viewers of ITV’s hit series Victoria starring Jenna Coleman, were left aghast and dismayed by the harrowing depiction of the Great Famine; an event which is ingrained into the national pshyce of the average Irish person. People had written to a well known television weekly wondering why they had not been taught anything of this in their schools. They were surprised at their own lack of knowledge about such a harrowing experience in both their own history and that of their nearest neighbour which, at the period of history in question, was part of the British Empire.
This thought came to mind as the opening credits rolled and the bitter sweet opening scenes of Black 47 appeared on the screen. An autumnal palette of pale blues and greens and muddy earthy brown’s appeared thanks to the cinematography of Declan Quinn. Bitter because of the abject poverty on display; sweet because of the stunning landscaped on view
As the plot unfurls you see skeletons in human form in nearly every shot, so authentic looking its unimaginable that you are merely watching someone playing a part.
The main plot of the film revolves around Feeney, a renegade ranger who has been ironically fighting for the British in India. Upon his return home he witnesses first hand the effects of the Penal Laws and the Potato Famine; which at this time are at their worst. The land that he returns to is one of decay, despair and desperation. Indeed one of the final times he sees his family is when his brother is shot for stealing and the rest of his family are left homeless when their house is “cleared” (that’s burned down to you and I), with tragic consequences.
It is these events which prove to be the final straw for Feeney as he sets about avenging his family and gaining revenge on those he feels responsible. This leads him to an ultimate confrontation with an old comrade Hannah, who served with Feeney in India and is now sent to track him down along with Captain Pope (played by Freddie Fox of the Fox acting dynesty) and a local villager called Conneely, (played by Stephen Rea). The character of Hannah is a typical adversarial type who has a begrudging admiration for Feeney. He is a soldier himself and so naturally knows the mentality of the man he is pursuing. It ultimately however leads him to wonder what cause he is fighting for. Coneely, (played by Stephen Rea in his usual dour understated manner is in many ways the character through which the narrative flows. He is there as us, as the casual onlooker through which the viewer in the cinema can feel they are playing a part. At one point he says, “I better stay and see how this tale ends”, telling the audience that he is the narrator. Meanwhile Jim Broadbent, in what is a rather small part for him, plays the affable landlord. Possessing land in a place foreign to him, has callous disregard for the people under his care. To him they are part of the problem rather than people under his care.
For some who have been to see this film they are unsure as to whether they should treat it as an off the boil period drama, criticising the more swashbuckling or gun hoe elements; for others the opposite is true.
Sufficit to say as a first major telling on the big screen of the great famine it was never going to satisfy everyone.
What perhaps most well practiced viewers should see is a well plotted and well shot drama which doesn’t loose the ability to plant it’s tongue firmly in it’s cheek. It is also important to note the role that the Irish language plays in this film. Having more dialogue in Ireland’s native tongue than can be remembered for a long time.
In this year when perhaps Britain is in danger of repeating the offence, it would do people on “the other island” some good to witness the consequences of the last time their poor decisions and bad judgement had tragic consequences – before they go making any more.