Film Review: The Nightingale

Jennifer Kent’s Waking Nightmare

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Uncompromising in its brutality, Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale tackles a completely different type of real-life horror than the director’s 2014 feature debut, The Babadook. A savage treatise on the evils of man - both the species and the gender - The Nightingale is a gauntlet of violence and terror that also happens to be one of this year’s most powerful films. Buoyed by blistering performances from Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr, Kent’s sophomore effort is as enthralling as it is difficult to watch. Minor spoilers ahead…

My screening of The Nightingale saw no fewer than three walkouts. Unrelenting in its cruelty and numerous depictions of rape and violence, Jennifer Kent’s second feature-length film is incredibly difficult to stomach. While it could be unfairly compared to the exploitation-era rape/revenge movies of the past, The Nightingale forgoes the feckless sensationalism of films such as I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left, and instead holds a darkly sober mirror that reflects the horrors of colonialism, racism, and misogyny. Uninterested in the exaggerated bloodletting and fantasy of your typical revenge yarn, Kent focuses on a grotesque hyper-realism that amplifies the emotional impact of the film’s brutal displays of suffering: The Nightingale is graphic and extreme, but it never veers into schlock or excess.

A particularly dark time in Australian history, the early-to-mid 1800s were riddled with colonialist atrocities, primarily perpetrated by England’s organized and state-sanctioned efforts to wipe out the aboriginal peoples. Utilizing this harrowing backdrop and setting its stage in the British colony of Van Diemen’s Land (present-day Tasmania) in 1825, The Nightingale centers around an Irishwoman named Clare (Aisling Franciosi, in an absolutely gut-wrenching performance), an indentured convict under the employ of the sadistic Captain Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Serving her time at a military outpost as little more than a slave, Clare spends her evenings singing for the lecherous troops and the monstrous captain, whose first act of the film is to violently rape her in his private quarters. It’s the first of the film’s many protracted rape scenes, which Kent deftly strips of any semblance of titillation, using them instead as a head-on confrontation with the savagery of misogyny and toxic masculinity. While Clare’s station is miserable and full of suffering and degradation, her saving grace comes in the form of her family: a husband that Hawkins has reluctantly allowed her to marry, and an infant child. However, after Hawkins reneges on an offer of freedom, spewing bile and possessives, Clare’s only haven is upended and immolated by multiple acts of unbearable violence and cruelty. When she awakens, battered and stripped of everything she holds dear, Clare embarks on a journey of a singular and searing intent: revenge.

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“A savage treatise on the evils of man - both the species and the gender - The Nightingale is a gauntlet of violence and terror that also happens to be one of this year’s most powerful films.”

As Hawkins and his reprobate crew (Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood) rape and murder their way up north to secure self-serving promotions, Clare pursues them with the help of a local aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr, in the film’s other killer performance). A native whose people have been systematically decimated by colonialist forces, Billy also has a long list of rage-fueled grievances against the English, but in the film’s smartest and most nuanced maneuver, The Nightingale withholds the bonds of affection between the two; Clare and Billy may be kindred spirits, but theirs is a relationship that thaws at a glacial pace. Clare initially bristles at the notion of working with “a black,” and Billy sees Clare as nothing more than another invader taking advantage of his people. Eventually, however, the two form a relationship steeled by their shared sorrows and pain - in their first true moment of connection, Clare and Billy sing songs by a campfire, cursing their mutual tormentors in their native tongues. The film practically belongs to Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr, a duo of such enervating brilliance that they quickly become the sole sources of light in the entire narrative.

The Nightingale is purposefully shot in striking and claustrophobic 4:3, an aspect ratio well-suited for anguished faces and boxed-in savagery. Kent once again utilizes the talents of cinematographer Radosław Ładczuk (The Babadook), but where her horror debut was all clever tricks and glossy polish, The Nightingale is deathly still and matter-of-fact. Stripped of any inkling of artifice, the film lays bare the atrocities that are being committed onscreen, piercing the veil of historical awfulness. What is likely to be 2019’s most difficult picture, The Nightingale is seemingly an endless march of injustices and violations. From its hanging corpses, to its sickening violence, to its many instances of rape, Jennifer Kent’s sophomore effort is a grueling marathon, but surprisingly, never gratuitous or exploitative. A sledgehammer of confrontation and an unflinching acknowledgement of evil, one can even argue that it is essential viewing. Kent, in an interview with Jezebel, speaks of her film: “It’s a little mystifying. It’s a war film, and it’s based on historical truths. Things that have happened in my country. War is not pretty, and if it’s shaking the tree and getting people to look at the fallout of war from this particular perspective, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

As evidenced by the walkouts during the screening I attended, The Nightingale isn’t for everyone. A film that teeters on the precipice of complete despair, it is exhausting and harrowing. However, where it is devoid of compromise and mercy, it isn’t devoid of hope, no matter how fleeting. Anchored by two unforgettable performances in Aisling Franciosi and first-time actor Baykali Ganambarr, The Nightingale is a powerful reckoning with the past, and a cautionary reflection of the present and future.

GRADE: A-