Black ’47 (2018)

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Soon a Celt will be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan. Martin Feeney (James Frecheville) is an Irish Ranger returning to Connemara from the British Empire’s war in Afghanistan to discover his family home destroyed like that of other tenant farmers and everyone dead from starvation, his brother having been hanged for stabbing the bailiff during the family’s eviction. He stays with his brother’s widow Ellie (Sarah Greene) and her children in the property where they’re squatting, making plans for everyone to emigrate to America, until the Anglo-Irish landlord sends in the bailiffs to remove them and Feeney’s nephew is killed.  Feeney is taken away for questioning and burns down the barracks. He returns to find Ellie and her daughter dead from exposure and swears revenge but murderous British Army vet and RIC officer Hannah (Hugo Weaving) is ordered along with Colonel Pope (Freddie Fox) to apprehend him.  Hannah and Feeney served together in Afghanistan and it transpires that Feeney is a deserter but Hannah acknowledges that his former colleague is the best soldier he ever met.  Hannah’s wiles are tested when Feeney goes on the run leaving a trail of grisly destruction behind him and when they encounter Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent) they find they are the ones being chased … The peasants are all the same. No appreciation of beauty.  Described elsewhere as a revenge western, this is a generically apposite form for a story that seeks to describe the psychological wound and schematic genocide caused by the famine enforced by British occupying powers in Ireland 170 years ago as well as delivering a revisionist resistance punch to the oppressors in entertaining fashion. We see the bodies dead from starvation mounting up in corners; food is held under armed guard before being exported to Britain;  we understand that the term ‘taking the soup’ derives from people who really were served broth to convert to Protestantism in a countrywide evangelical drive.  The Famine has featured recently in British TV series Victoria but this is the first time it’s been properly dramatised on the big screen, a strange fate for such a significant disaster that lives as trauma in the folk memory. The title is based on this fact:  in 1847 4,000 ships exported food from Ireland while 400,000 Irish men women and children starved to death during a blight on the potato crop which was their sole food.  The disease affected whole swathes of Europe but Ireland’s position was far worse than that of other countries due to the geographical island location and the British occupation. Taking the action movie approach to this emotive history is smart because it immediately personalises the motivation in an easily digestible narrative that fulfills a kind of empathetic nationalist fantasy about a horrific political crime. While it mostly moves like the clappers in several action sequences, there are almost surreal expressions of violence. There are two rather irksome elements:  the decision to use subtitles that bob about distractingly all over the image; and the failure to engage a major Irish star in the lead. This may seem like cavil but Frecheville’s dour expression isn’t assisted either by a huge ginger beard that wouldn’t look out of place on Santa Claus and camouflages him. And it’s an odd choice in a film that is ultimately speaking an historical truth to power when your protagonist is Australian, no matter how good Frecheville is in the Clint Eastwood role, the ranger turncoat; but Stephen Rea does his usual thing as tracker/guide Conneely, while rising stars Barry Keoghan and Moe Dunford get extremely good supporting parts; and Broadbent is brutally effective as the vicious absentee landlord inspired by an ancestor of the notorious Lord Lucan. Weaving is typically good and the ending at a crossroads is apt for a story rooted in a nation permanently playing both ends against the middle with tragic outcomes. It’s not perfect but it’s gripping and who ever knew there were so many shades of grey before Declan Quinn photographed those Galway skies?! Some compositions could be out of a Paul Henry painting. Adapted by P.J. Dillon and Pierce Ryan from their short film An Ranger with further writing from director Lance Daly and Eugene O’Brien. Everyone’s starving and they’re putting food on boats

Stroszek (1977)


Werner Herzog makes extraordinary films, doesn’t he? And here’s a road movie to beat the band. Bruno (Bruno S., Kaspar Hauser) has just been released from prison following a drunken episode. His problems all relate to having been brought up in Nazi-run institutions. His dwarf neighbour Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) has kept his myna bird and flat, complete with piano. Music has saved his life but he can’t earn a living from singing in the streets. He falls for prostitute Eva (Eva Mattes, more familiar from her work with Fassbinder) but she needs to escape local thugs and she works extra to get them all the money to leave Berlin and go to the United States, where Scheitz’s nephew runs a garage in rural Wisconsin. Things start badly when Stroszek’s myna bird is confiscated on arrival.  It’s tough to earn a living and the bank closes in on Eva and Stroszek’s home so she has to whore herself again and they split up. Stroszek compares the American way of life to that which he experienced  under the Nazis – spiritual abuse. When his home is publicly auctioned he takes a truck and ultimately abandons it in Fort Tomahawk, running it in ever-decreasing circles, as he looks at a display of performing chickens and armed police arrive… This tragicomic look at the life of three apparent eccentrics is actually a startling dissection of what passes for human existence, in all its pathetic banality,underscored by the muzakal interpretation of By the Time I Get to Phoenix (James Last, vielleicht?!) It’s a portrait of the US that doesn’t enhance one’s views of prospects outside the metropolis and Herzog captures the utter degradation of poverty in a land without pity.

The Visitor (2007)

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I didn’t have high hopes for this given the premise:  admittedly I thought it would be the cinematic equivalent of Coldplay (dire, boring, unimaginative and not for anyone who loves music. I digress.) I forgot that it was written and directed by Tom McCarthy, responsible for The Station Agent and Spotlight. Richard Jenkins is Walter, the widowed college professor whose life is in a rut and he leaves Connecticut to attend a conference in NYC where to his astonishment he finds a foreign couple living in his apartment. Syrian Tarek and his Senegalese wife Zainab have been there for 2 months. He changes his mind about throwing them out and they form a grudging friendship – Zainab is suspicious while Tarek teaches him to play the bongos. When Tarek is randomly arrested in the subway, Walter hires an immigration lawyer.  He has to break the bad news to Tarek’s mother –  she arrives unannounced from Michigan, surprised at Tarek’s wife – she’s so black! she declares – and reluctantly stays in the apartment, to which Walter returns super-fast after clearing up business back at his house. This is low-key, mild, yes, but utterly involving due to some good characterisation in the writing and performing. It is not kind about the US and the way it treats its guests – not exactly unfamiliar territory to anyone even just going on a week-long holiday with Visa – both kinds! – in their sweaty paws  (the basement in JFK, anyone?!) … This creeps up on you, a rare, adult treat.


Brooklyn (2015)

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Nostalgia was a recognised illness, starting out as extreme homesickness amongst soldiers at war in Europe four centuries ago.  The last acknowledged afflictee was in World War 1. Homesickness dominates the first part of this film when smalltown Irish girl Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) leaves class-ridden Enniscorthy in 1952 courtesy of an offer made to establish a new life in New York city by a benign priest friend of her golfing accountant sister Rose. Ronan’s wonderful performance is the still centre of an incredibly simple story and it is hard to see how the film would survive its broad strokes without her. The pace is slower than we are accustomed to these days, assisting with the attenuation of her role. We read a lot of ourselves into her own silent reactions, rather like we would to Garbo. She gradually becomes accustomed to her new life and when a tragedy takes her home she secretly marries her Italian beau before departing. She then attracts the kind of rugger bugger that wouldn’t have given her a second glance before. Then the reality of her home town’s spitefulness hits her and she leaves again – this time for good. And that is that.