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BERLIN 2018 Out of competition

Review: Black 47

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- BERLIN 2018: In a well-meaning, if not entirely successful, feature presented out of competition at Berlin, Irish director Lance Daly takes on the Great Famine and ends up with a western

Review: Black 47
James Frecheville in Black 47

When watching Lance Daly’s Black 47 [+see also:
trailer
interview: Lance Daly
film profile
]
, screening out of competition at the 68th Berlin Film Festival, it’s hard not to think about Brimstone [+see also:
film review
trailer
Q&A: Martin Koolhoven
film profile
]
– Martin Koolhoven’s recent take on western iconography, which saw Guy Pearce’s preacher relentlessly pursuing Dakota Fanning. This time it’s up to Animal Kingdom’s James Frecheville, cast as deserter Martin Feeney, who, after fighting for the British Army abroad, finally returns to Ireland only to find his family dead and his country on the brink of exhaustion. Pushed to extremes, he embarks on a vendetta punctuated by grisly deaths and staring contests with Hugo Weaving, playing a man sent to stop him. But while both films share certain similarities and flaws – not to mention a rather bleak colour palette – Daly’s fascination with the genre is certainly much less obvious.

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This is mostly because his sixth feature is also a look at an especially painful moment in Irish history: the Great Famine, a period of disease, mass starvation and emigration that lasted between 1845 and 1849 and claimed the lives of at least one million people. Daly certainly doesn’t shy away from showing what such unexpected tragedy really meant for Ireland and its citizens, deprived of just about everything and left to die by an indifferent government. But he then decides to pair such details with slightly cartoonish characters, scenes of exaggerated violence that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Jo Nesbø thriller, and Brian Byrne’s overenthusiastic soundtrack, seemingly composed for much more exciting events than the ones witnessed on the screen. It is, he seems to be underlining at every given moment, not just another period drama.

This is commendable, as there have been plenty of those, if not necessarily told from that particular perspective. But there is no denying that the odd tone shifts don’t always work and even the most experienced actors simply fail to engage, with their characters coming off as one-sentence descriptions, rather than actual human beings. Belfast-born Stephen Rea fares better than most, not to mention getting all the best lines. “Beauty would be held in higher regard if it could be eaten,” he says at one point, adding some dry humour to the proceedings. But such moments of levity are rare, and Feeney’s righteous journey ultimately leads nowhere. A noble effort, then, if not much else.

Black 47 was produced by Macdara Kelleher, Tim O’Hair, Arcadiy Golubovich and Jonathan Loughran for Ireland’s Fastnet Films and US outfit Primeridian Production, in association with the Irish Film Board, and in co-production with Luxembourg’s Samsa Film, Belgium’s Umedia and Sea Around Us. It was backed by the Film Fund Luxembourg, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and Eurimages, and its international sales are handled by Altitude Film Entertainment.

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