The Nightingale is a rough film. Which is to say, it covers some serious ground in its trek across the rugged Tasmanian wilderness, and not to question its technical merits. Following her debut with The Babadook in 2014, Jennifer Kent continues to carve out a niche of psychological torment and hardship as her calling card, and effectively take her audience places to which they might not voluntarily venture. The path to the destination might not always be smooth, but The Nightingale makes the journey the real experience.
Director: Jennifer Kent
Release Date: August 2, 2019 (limited) August 9, 2019 (expanding)
In the early 19th century, the Australian continent (here, specifically Tasmania) is in a state of colonization by the English. Irish prisoners such as Clare (Aisling Franciosi) and her husband (Michael Sheasby) are relegated to hard labor and service under English troops in an effort to work off their sentences. Living with her husband and infant child, Clare looks to appease Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) in order to receive proper documentation and leave her life of hardship. If only.
Hawkins, embittered by his dirty detail and stalled efforts to rise through the ranks, lashes out at Clare early on, in ways most horrific. Flanked by his subordinates and in a position of power Clare is helpless before Hawkins, and soon left for dead and alone. The Nightingale hardly gives its audience ten minutes before the trauma kicks in and our course is set; revenge is the word and the way.
Blinded by grief and then rage, Clare reluctantly enlists Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to lead her to Hawkins and his cohorts Ruse and Jago (Damon Herriman and Harry Greenwood), the three of whom have made for a distant outpost for seemingly-better positions.
The way in which The Nightingale feels to immediately start its plot rolling is a bit of a blessing and a curse. Certainly to waste time in a film can be a death sentence, but with 136 minutes of tracking, shooting, and general unpleasantness and vitriol to spare, Kent’s film can feel a little elongated at times. Yet it’s renewed entirely by its performances, and the points at which it drives.
The heftiest turns are those of Franciosi and Ganambarr as the odd couple set loose in the wild. Billy’s disdain for white settlers is made palpable in a carefree mockery of Clare, initially; she’s lost in the woods without him and he knows it. Meanwhile she bears the burden of a family lost and a lifetime of oppression, eventually revealing to Billy her life as an Irishwoman under the boot of English rule, living as an orphan and eventually a thief, which sent her to jail and the penal colony in which we’re living. The gradual relationship between Billy and Clare isn’t entirely original or unpredictable, but the way it starts so abrasively, Clare shouting and Billy giving less than a care while she waves her rifle around, makes for a satisfying result when the two are united.
For as clear of an arc as our heroes have our emblematic antagonists remain mostly one-note, though not necessarily as caricatures or unrealistic. Hawkins is proven time and time again to be an utterly sadistic, impulsive bully, battering and assaulting women at his leisure and murdering on a whim. It’s from Hawkins that so much of The Nightingale‘s shocking and brutal content stems, and his stagnation as a character raises interesting questions. Certainly there’s no need for every character we see to be a sympathetic one, and Hawkins brings to mind a key mantra I’ve absorbed for dissecting a character: Everyone is the hero of their own story. So how is it then that Hawkins can justify the cold-blooded slaughter of Aboriginals? The degradation of prisoners? It comes down to misogyny and blatant racism; the sickness of self-righteousness, and viewing other human beings as lesser creatures. It’s the Hawkins character and his stubborn, truly psychopathic nature that yields The Nightingale‘s most-damning themes and declarations.
Kent’s film is a brutal stalwart against the kinds of genocidal racism that fueled colonization, and the ways in which it uses its two leads to tell dual stories of hatred feels natural and appropriate. Billy as a representative of the Aboriginals exterminated and relocated, and Clare a woman battered by men her whole life. It’s the understanding that they’re both victims, and not so unlike, that draws them together and eventually emboldens them in their quest for revenge. Any fears of one-dimensionality need to be understood as a deliberate statement on the part of the filmmakers, painting the antagonists as utter villains as if to say “Yes, and these villains are based on history far uglier than we could show in the film.”
There’s a lot to unpack in Kent’s script, and to match such deep rumination the film’s look and feel are mostly subdued and clinical, even. The Nightingale features some incredibly savage, disturbing acts of violence and hatred, and the camera rarely looks away. On one hand, honesty is necessary for tackling any subject matter and coming out on top. On the other, The Nightingale is not a visceral film. The violence, even from the start, feels detached in a way, perhaps supported by the film’s generally-dull color palette. Certainly you don’t want the sadism of the film to be exciting or enjoyable; I’d go as far as to say The Nightingale seeks to be educational in its matter-of-fact depiction of colonization. It then becomes a tricky thing, showing horrors to educate while not titillate. Revenge is a dish best served cold though, and I’m less critical of Kent’s work and more struck by it here, unable to say just how one makes brutality feel brutal, while avoiding cries of “exploitation.”
There’s an impressive consistency to the visuals that could have easily diverted into more-fantastical realms. As with The Babadook, Kent will use Clare’s visions and nightmares as fodder for the audience, and while the mysticism and spirituality of the Aboriginal people could have manifested in wild and vibrant visuals, our tone is kept in check and appropriately dire. And it’s always worth noting when a period piece’s wardrobe keeps things in check, and The Nightingale‘s costumes are sedate and effective where they matter, with the occasional flourish coming in the form of military duds or a wealthy townsman’s overcoat.
The aforementioned bluntness of The Nightingale‘s pacing might be perceived as a bit of a double-edged sword, with our story being set from the start and the journey largely without any great shock. Kent’s subject matter is heinous and audacious, and again the head-on nature of the direction is so upfront that it starts and wins its own argument, damning colonization as the rape of a land, and paralleling it with the violence committed against an individual.
It’s tough to say I “enjoyed” The Nightingale, as much as one can “enjoy” such harrowing content. Kent’s film is a revenge story in its purest form, marked by a western aesthetic and tempo that feels familiar but engrossing for those invested. The Nightingale stuck with me as an incredibly important piece of filmmaking, for reasons that I sort of grasped only sometime after actually sitting to watch it. Where it startles you right out of the gates with Clare’s mantra of personal revenge, it’s almost a red herring. Kent certainly doesn’t trivialize her protagonist’s suffering, but instead contextualizes it in the tableau of colonization, essentially saying “Yes, Clare was treated savagely. Now imagine an entire continent of people treated this way.”
For creating a story of revenge that feels pure in that ideology, without relishing any satisfaction Clare may find on her path, but at the same time telling parallel stories that strike at similar pains, The Nightingale ought to be lauded. It manages to feel intimate, yet speaks to injustices more massive than those committed against one single person. Its road might not always be pleasant, but The Nightingale‘s journey is a tremendously important one.