REVIEW – ‘The Nightingale’ is one of the most confronting films of the year

In 2014, The Babadook marked the impressive arrival of actress turned writer/director Jennifer Kent. With her dazzling debut, Kent terrified audiences with one of the most original horror films in years. To call her follow-up “highly anticipated” would be an understatement. On paper, The Nightingale is a clear departure from the horror genre found in Kent’s debut. But, make no mistake, this is a film that will still horrify an audience, albeit in an entirely different way.

With its unflinching depiction of savage violence against women and Australia’s indigenous people, The Nightingale is a difficult film to endure, one that was too much for several members of my screening’s audience. Kent has crafted a piece of cinema that refuses to sugarcoat history. It will shock you, but that’s precisely the reaction she expects. A revenge thriller overflowing with blood, rape, and death, this is one of the most confronting films of the year and one that will leave a lasting impression.

Set during the early British colonisation of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) in 1825, The Nightingale focuses its tale on young Clare (a terrific Aisling Franciosi), an Irish ex-convict trapped under the command of the cruel and vindictive British Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin, impressively playing against type). Clare has served her seven-year sentence for petty theft, but Hawkins refuses to release her and provide a ticket to freedom with her husband, Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and their recently-born baby.

While making empty promises of one day signing her release papers, Hawkins instead treats Clare like a piece of his property, forcing her to sing (her nickname is the titular “the nightingale”) in the local tavern for his drunken compatriots, before violently raping her for his twisted personal pleasure. When a desperate Aidan makes an impassioned appeal for his wife’s release, Hawkin’s raging punishment is swift and ferocious, in a sequence of unspeakable tragedy, enacted by the Lieutenant and his snivelling subordinates, Ruse (Damon Herriman) and Jago (Harry Greenwood).

Fleeing the carnage of their violent outburst, Hawkins and his accomplices head for the northern town of Launceston and the promise of a promotion for the ill-tempered Lieutenant. Awakening from her concussion, Clare is now a woman scorned, fueled by firey vengeance for the crimes committed against her family. Receiving little help from the local authorities, she resolves to hunt down the men all by herself. But this is no path to be travelling solo. As such, Clare reluctantly recruits an Aboriginal tracker Billy (a breakthrough performance from Baykali Ganambarr) to escort her through the harsh bushland. As their journey unfolds, Clare will soon learn she’s not the only one out for revenge.

While the chase between Clare and Hawkins is the centrepiece of Kent’s narrative, with the beleaguered convict desperately pushing towards seeking her furious retaliation, the real crux of the plot comes from the cautiously growing connection between Clare and Billy. When their trek begins, Clare is suspicious and untrusting of her black guide. Likewise, Billy holds equal contempt for his new white master. But the pair slowly begins to appreciate their common enemy in the British colonists. The Irish are treated like dogs by the English, with women considered their rightful slaves. It’s a startling realisation of common ground that Billy begins to empathise with, having seen firsthand the shameful mistreatment of his people at the hands of these British invaders.

Kent never shies away from shining a damning spotlight on Australia’s dark beginnings, much like last year’s Sweet Country, with the two existing as perfect companion pieces. The Aboriginal characters are mistreated, abused, beaten, and generally treated like animals. At one point, Clare and Billy pass by the lynched corpses of two young indigenous men, a stark reminder of the violent and bloody stain on this country’s past. These moments are undoubtedly difficult to view, but the historical context demands they are portrayed and that we pay attention. As uncomfortable as it may be, this is an honest and earnest depiction of the birth of this nation.

As Billy recounts the slaughter of his family by whitefellas when he was a young boy, Clare begins to sense their common tragedy, opening the path to an empathetic mutual understanding of one another. At first, Clare is uninterested in Billy’s culture, dismissing Aboriginal traditions as “hocus pocus.” But when she falls ill, it’s Billy’s traditional herbal medicine that saves her. Kent has taken deft care in her attentive portrayal of Aboriginal culture, with deep respect shown to the language and traditions of our indigenous folk.

The film’s representation of violence against women is rightly brutal and extreme, perfectly capturing the savageness and randomness acts of this nature often exhibit. While these sequences become a test of endurance for an audience, with Kent refusing to cut away or edit down these scenes, they are necessary to the film’s dark nature and narrative intentions. We need to feel Clare’s searing pain, so as to become willing observers of her quest for blood.

When bloody vengeance arrives (and, oh boy, does it arrive), there’s a brief sense of satisfaction, but Kent quickly follows that with questioning whether violence begetting violence can ever truly be satisfactory. Clare becomes plagued by terrifying nightmares featuring demonic visions of her intended victims, allowing Kent to add a dash of her horror genre sensibilities to perfect effect. It places our protagonist lurching on the edge of madness, gifting Franciosi ample opportunity to showcase her brilliant skills.

Franciosi is sublime in a captivating and compelling lead performance, taking Clare from a subservient and submissive wallflower to a fervent and fierce bat out of hell with an extreme intensity for blazing retribution. Franciosi instils Clare with unrelenting grit and determination, crafting a new Western heroine in the process. Ganambarr is equally as impressive, in his debut performance that shows great promise. The pair shares an uneasy chemistry that unfolds as their relationship evolves. It occasionally teeters on romance, but Kent wisely refuses to fall into this tired trope.

The film’s atmospheric tone is beautifully captured by the cinematography of Radek Ladczuk, showcasing both the majesty and danger of Tasmania’s misty, moss-covered wilderness. Shot in Academy ratio, The Nightingale never quite reaches the widescreen heights of similar pieces, with Ladczuk more intent on focuses on the characters than the land they’re trekking through. Consistently using close-ups to frame the pain, confusion, and chaos our leads find themselves in, Ladczuk is more concerned with crafting an intimate character piece than a dazzling portrait of Tasmania.

There is some unfortunate disappointment with the film’s third act, where Kent’s screenplay stretches and lags somewhat, as we head to the conclusion we ache for but one that keeps being pushed further and further away. Kent appears to be toying with our expectations, but it becomes rather frustrating for the viewer, given the torment we’ve already endured. When the climatic confrontation arrives, it’s diminished by some rather subpar dialogue in a scene devoid of realism.

Claflin’s character is borderline cartoonish, leaving us with a villain that feels rather inauthentic. He’s necessarily barbaric and cruel, but with no semblance of motivation or development. His performance has no choice but to start at an extreme, leaving Claflin without a proper character arc. There may be some who decree the film’s violence as unnecessary exploitation, particularly the sequence providing the catalyst for Clare’s revenge. It’s still left me somewhat numb, and I can’t quite say whether that makes it wildly effective or just downright damaging.

A revisionist Western with decidedly feminist ideals, The Nightingale is one of the most brutal films you will ever see. It’s a tough watch that may simply be too extreme for some. But it’s a rough experience made endurable and rewarding by impeccable filmmaking and sensational acting from a brilliant ensemble cast. Minor flaws aside, it’s an important and gripping work that firmly solidifies Kent as a remarkable filmmaker and one of this country’s brightest talents.

Distributor: Transmission
Cast: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Michael Sheasby, Ewen Leslie, Charlie Shotwell, Charlie Jampijinpa Brown, Magnolia Maymuru
Director: Jennifer Kent
Screenplay: Jennifer Kent
Producers: Kristina Ceyton, Bruna Papandrea, Steve Hutensky, Jennifer Kent
Cinematography: Radek Ladczuk
Production Design: Alex Holmes
Music: Jed Kurzel
Editor: Simon Njoo
Running Time: 138 minutes
Release Date: 29th August 2019 (Australia)