The year is 1847, and across Europe the effects of the potato blight have been a famine across the continent that has been wiping out millions of people through starvation. In Ireland, things are little different, though the reasons are: while the small country is generating enough food for its populace, the British Empire rule the land and are exporting their produce to feed the citizens elsewhere, and that is why the Irish are starving. This injustice is creating great resentment, and when Martin Feeney (James Frecheville) deserts his British Army post to return, he finds desolation where he used to live. When he tries to step in and do something, the Brits attempt to crush him...
Although there is no apparent record of any uprising against the British during the 1840s crisis, on anything like a substantial scale at least, in the movies liberties can be taken and that was the inspiration behind Black '47, a piece its key talents readily called an Irish Western. You might be concerned that whereas not many Hollywood Westerns depicted the Old West with much historical accuracy, the plotline here may have been just as much of a fantasy, on watching it you could see what amounted to an act of vengeance in cinematic form as director and co-writer Lance Daly took it upon himself to right the wrongs of the famine on his own terms with an invented story.
Nevertheless, the cruelties and toxic politics that brought the tragedy about were fairly accurately portrayed, if sketched rather than offering up an in-depth history lesson, and while there was a sense of honouring the dead and refugees of all those years ago, as more or less the first film to depict this grim period of history you could forgive it those aforementioned liberties - after all, Ireland's population was never the same once the famine took hold, even unto this day. So it remains an important part of the history, though depicting it like this, as an excuse for score-settling violence, may have been questionable factually, if largely understandable emotionally.
A film showing the bleak realities of the situation would have been a tough watch without an adventure narrative to lift it and give us a reason to stick with it, so Feeney turns outlaw when he suffers a personal loss thanks to the unfeeling British landlords, suddenly going all Rambo when faced with a building full of British soldiers who he easily overwhelms. The influence of American action movies was definitely present in its loner of a crusader, the idea that one man against the corrupt system can do plenty of damage, and that was transplanted to this era in what could be regarded as in questionable taste. However, as it was hardly the first action movie to deliver that attractive invention of the more than capable killer righteously bumping off those who had taken so much from him, you tended to excuse it.
The cast were a mixture of Irish, British and Australian, curiously not hiring two local talents to play the leads but two Aussies instead as Frecheville and Hugo Weaving essayed the roles of hunter and quarry (or the other way around). Weaving was Inspector Hannah, initially arrested for murdering a rebel in the opening couple of minutes, but offered a pardon if he tracks down Feeney and, in effect, executes him for the establishment before he does any more damage. Overseeing this was Freddie Fox as British officer Pope, one of the hissable bad guys though while the antagonists were painted in broad strokes, the actors were able to find nuances in them that prevented them being cartoon moustache-twirling villains. Jim Broadbent was also there as one of the authorities, and Stephen Rea probably offered the best performance as a supposed collaborator whose charm masks a different agenda. Historically, it was better as that Western they were promoting than any kind of textbook, but while downbeat and grey, it rattled along engrossingly for the most part. Music Brian Byrne.
[Altitude's Blu-ray delivers on sound and vision, and has a making of featurette, the trailer and three songs as extras.]