There is a fair few of vigilante films out there made in the past decades. Arguably, even the superhero genre is one in its own right. It can therefor become a tiresome act, watching a man neglected by the authorities ‘take the law into his own hands’ with predictable outcomes. However, Lance Daley’s 2018 picture Black 47 is surprisingly engaging. Set against the Irish potato famine of the 19th century, a disgruntled Connaught Ranger sets out in revenge against the landowner who effectively killed his family. Paralleling this is Hannah- Hugo Weaving’s uptight British veteran sent to catch him. The young snooty officer Pope joins him, and so we follow the brutal cat and mouse act.
The ‘meanwhile, back at the ranch’ style of storytelling Daley adopts is interestingly able to flicker audiences sympathies between each party. United by the animosity we all feel towards Jim Broadbent’s Lord Kilmichael (characters included), we are caught between two sides of the story. Daley reflects this feeling in the final shot, placing Hannah between two crossroads, emblematic of his decision. Speaking of conclusions, the finale for me was clever, and riddled with potential. However, I can’t escape the hastened sense of rushing to the finish line. Hannah’s story especially is cut short, not yet fully explored.
This is true of the entire film; capable and entertaining, yet lacking in some dimensions. The opening scenes feel a little amateur and clumpy, but my impressions subverted quickly with compelling camerawork. After Ranger Feeney is arrested, the unexpected fight scene is ingeniously choreographed. Acutely framed by the doorway, we witness an action sequence that is not, for once, sped up into a monotonous montage of punches.
The thread of violence weaves throughout the entire narrative with bitter conviction. Though sometimes verging on melodramatic screen spectacle, Daley manages to bring the story back to its political roots. Kilmichael’s arrogance echoes the ignorance of authority when stating his excitement for the day Celtic Irishmen become as rare in Ireland as ‘a Red Indian in Manhattan.’ Daley’s post-colonial criticisms ring with resentment- and rightly so. Non-English-speaking Irish men prohibited from speaking their native language in court commentates on the injustice of hierarchical systems.
It’s through these allegories that Daley is able to ground an otherwise escapist gritty thriller. There are times when the story slips into standardized dramatic conventions. Nonetheless, Daley demonstrates his filmmaking ability well. The inclusion of the Gaelic language hands the respect to Irishmen that the film is demanding from its characters. I also admired Daley’s restrained dialogue; a common obstacle for conventional filmmaking. Facial expressions, long pauses and the absence of words has a much larger impact that rambling exposition can. So it was refreshing to see it practiced, especially by a relatively new director.
Overall, Black 47 is a ruthless, blood-spattered revenge thriller, eager to offer its political hostility towards the domination of the British Empire. Daley misfires the Braveheart (dir. Mel Gibson, 1995) cinematic epic I believe it tried to be. Nonetheless, Black 47 remains determined and loyal to its message, acting as a microcosm for unjust colonialist rule.