Note from the writer: I’m putting a content warning on this film. There are three scenes of stark sexual violence and it’s something to be wary of for those who are interested in seeing the movie.
In cinema there are films that you enjoy and there are films that you bear witness to. Requiem for a Dream, Irreversible, Audition are all films that have a high artistic value but can only really ever be viewed once lest you want your sense of optimism drained away forever. With The Nightingale, Jennifer Kent adds her sophomoric effort to that growing list, delivering an utterly brutal story that must be viewed if only once.
Set in Tasmania in 1825, The Nightingale drops us into the world of Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a 21 year old Irish convict who shares a life with her husband and their baby. At the beck and call of British officer, Hawkins (Sam Claflin), Clare is forced to perform for and serve his fellow soldiers regularly, as she watches them get drunk and belligerent, shirking whatever kind of civility they feign once night falls on the Australian bushland. Following a truly harrowing altercation with Hawkins, Clare finds herself a widow and mother to a dead child, attempting to find justice in a land that refuses to listen to her. Taking her rage and matters into her own hands she sets out to get revenge on Hawkins and his fellow officers that snatched her family away from her, with a young Aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) brought along to help the young convict navigate the harsh lands of Tasmania.
Following the success of the The Babadook, Kent essentially had Hollywood beating down her door for her next film and it’s incredibly admirable that she chose this particular subject matter to be her second outing. An extremely hard watch, Kent refuses to shy from the harsh realities of colonial Australia. She seldom looks away when other filmmakers would have cut, forcing us to the reckon with the evils that were perpetrated. It’s understandable that people would have a hard time with the material (some 30 walk outs reported at the film’s showing at the Sydney Film Fest this year), but Kent makes it essential that we witness the brutality experienced by the characters – fraying our nerves – in order for her to tell a more honest tale. In doing so, she rewards us with some sublime filmmaking, particularly in the second half where the rage begins to dissipate, and the gorgeous desolation of the Tasmanian wilderness begins to consume our characters. Kent even returns to her horror roots, with truly nightmarish scenes that are both oddly beautiful and truly hair raising. One dream sequence in particular made my entire body run cold.
Franciosi is truly wonderful as Clare, wearing a palpable mask of rage and fatigue for much of the film. She oscillates effortlessly between wanting revenge for her family and questioning her motives when things get a little too rough for her. Her scenes are made all the more engrossing when playing across Ganambarr’s Billy, the pissed off young Aboriginal tracker who’s been forced to watch his entire heritage and culture be stamped out, being able to do nothing but drink his sorrows away. While subdued and apathetic for much of the first half of the film, Ganambarr is allowed to really up open and shine come the finale. Though at first adversaries, Billy and Clare share an obvious common enemy, but Kent plays on an established hierarchy, not shying away from a protagonist’s racism even though she herself is under the same boot of the British. The boot in this scenario being worn by Claflin’s squared-jawed and brutish Hawkins, whose own sense of entitlement is what sets the film on its course in the first place. Claflin does away with whatever boyish charm might have been seen in his previous films, here replaced with a “civilised” form of evil that will make your hair stand on end.
Truthfully, The Nightingale isn’t a film that I can recommend for entertainment value. It’s a harsh film that pulls no punches. But if you feel you have the stomach for it, it’s both an important and at times beautiful film, showing off a talent that continues to climb their way to the top of their game.