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Fearless famine film

On the Edge

On The Edge
Áine Ryan

WHY has ‘Black 47’, a most powerful and poetic film about the Great Famine, ‘bombed’ in American cinemas? ‘Brooklyn’ – with its romantic, soft-focus on the pull of the auld sod – didn’t. (Of course, we shouldn’t underestimate the Saoirse Ronan factor.)  
But then the grim and grey realities of a devastated, starving peasant people – our forebears – has little romanticism. Mass emaciation is uncomfortable viewing. Colonial corruption and the cultural ambivalence it engenders is a part of our narrative that the majority of our history books have preferred to ignore.

Familiar frame   
MOREOVER, when a film is framed by a landscape that is all too familiar, it is almost easier to look away. To steal a few references from Dev’s so-called ‘dream speech’ of 1943, there were no ‘cosy homesteads’ or ‘sturdy children’ or indeed ‘the laughter of happy maidens’ in these dark times.  
Revenge is the vehicle for this complex story that exposes all the atrocities of medieval landlordism and the treachery of laissez-faire economics.   
When the hero is an Irishman and a former member of British Army regiment the Connaught Rangers who fought alongside his political nemesis in Afghanistan, the plot adds a compelling complexity – a reality about these times, once again so often ignored.
Feeney (played by James Frechville) returns to decimation. Those members of his family who have survived starvation so far have been so disenfranchised they are barely human, living in ditches and hovels. Feeney’s white rage propels him on a journey of revenge and retribution. Hannah (Hugo Weaving), a soldier he fought alongside in Afghanistan, is hired to track him down. The ensuing scenes – while unfurling the many socio-economic and political elements contributing to this holocaust – are not for the faint-hearted.
Interestingly, the Irish actor Stephen Rea suggested on The Late Late Show that the film should be on the Leaving Cert course. (This viewer, however, was surprised at its 15 cert because of the unbridled rawness of the violence.) Rea brilliantly portrays the sleeveen chancer, Conneely, whose loyalties are firmly on the side of his own when the chips are down.   

Irish America     
SO, wouldn’t you think that with 33 million Americans (10.5 percent of the population of the US) claiming Irish heritage they would be flocking to see the first feature film to examine the greatest catastrophe to ever hit our people? Indeed, its impact is the very reason why so many of them are now third- and fourth-generation American citizens.
On the other hand, here on this side of the pond, it has been a huge hit, quickly grossing €900,000. Ironically, this has made it the strongest opening in Ireland since Brooklyn hit our screens in 2015. Meanwhile, the Irish-American news site, recently opined that: “After three weeks in US circulation and in 100 cinemas last weekend, the movie grossed just $33,471 and was ranked 54th by”
Other than a mooted marketing issue, perhaps the reason it has not drawn as large an audience as ‘Brooklyn’ is its gritty rawness. Isn’t it easier for Irish Americans to go all misty-eyed and bedad- and begorrah-ish about the home country?
Key to its relative lack of success in the US also is the fact that this was not a big Hollywood blockbuster. It relied on a small budget with funding from private and public production companies including the Irish Film Board, Film Fund Luxembourg and the Council of Europe’s Eurimages.
But wouldn’t a slick, big-budget screening have put a sheen on a story that should not have a cosmetic veneer? Wasn’t it the point of its evocative and emotional screenplay to expose the stark realities of an entirely avoidable genocide?