Monday, 8 October 2018
Black '47 lifts the avenging cowboy archetype out of the Old West, relocating the idea of a ghostly nemesis to 19th century Ireland, deep in the midst of the Great Famine. Director Lance Daly's film, working from a screenplay credited to himself, PJ Dillon, Pierce Ryan, and Eugene O'Brien, is built around a coarser trespass than, say, High Plains Drifter. Eastwood's wraith returned to life with the intention to settle an outrage made against his own earthly body. James Frecheville's towering, mad-eyed Feeney rends and tears not just on behalf of his own family, starved out of their homes then murdered by either wilful negligence or a crooked legal system, but the belief that Irishness is a distinct, valid national identity.
Feeney is an Irish veteran of the First Anglo-Afghan War, a proxy exchange fought in a wider conflict between the British and Russian empires, both kingdoms competing for mind and land share in Asia. Feeney is othered by his relationship with Britain. His nephew views him as a traitor, doubting his uncle's commitment to their blood, as if Feeney's brush with imperialism would so toxic as to fundamentally alter the man's interior desires and outlook. When considering his (apparently terrifying) part in the Afghanistan war, Feeney refers to himself in terms of subordination, acknowledging that no matter how talented and deadly he may have been he was still viewed as his English superior's pet. His contribution has been framed as lesser simply because of where he was born.
Having returned home, Feeney attempts to reconnect with his family, planning to take them all with him to America. He discovers his mother has died in his absence, her cottage transformed into a pen for a particularly well-fed pig by an avaricious, lip service relative. His sister and her children are homeless, squatting in the ruins of a cottage, following Feeney's brother's execution for stealing food. Everyone is starving. The authorities are not even attempting to help, in fact the British lords who own the land are pleased the Irish are dying off, as it means they are no longer obliged to pay for their citizen's financial support. Feeney's targets are these parasites and collaborators, the hoarders happy to prod weak, starving families away from their door while grain moulders in their larders. Men who'd rather tear the roof off an isolated, derelict shack than suffer a family to enjoy its scant warmth for free. Monsters, basically.
Feeney attacks these authorities and the systems that support them, dodging the misfiring pistols and infantry rifles to hack through the Red Coats with his curved kukris. This Nepalese knife not only pricks the idea of other oppressed peoples existing under the umbrella of the East India Company but also a serviceman so attuned to knife murder that he has taken a far-flung example as his sidearm. Black '47 seethes, proposing colonialism, and the British strain in particular, as a sickness that penetrates and undermines the identity of an indigenous population, setting unobtainable, invisible standards for the poor while simultaneously driving the rootless and nakedly ambitious to emulate the abject cruelty of the ruling class. Hatred is the norm. After all, the helpless have brought it on themselves.