First a word of warning: Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is not for everyone, and that’s putting it very mildly. It contains prolonged and graphic scenes of violence, sexual violence, and very strong language. However, I also wish to say upfront that in my opinion none of this is unwarranted or exploitative, even though it is brutal, uncompromising, and rightly hard to sit through. Obviously not everyone wants to do that, which is fair enough. However, for those with the temperament for a very tough watch, read on.
Kent’s first film The Babadook was my favourite horror film of the last decade, and earned a high place on my ten best films of the decade. The Nightingale isn’t a horror film in the genre sense, but it’s subject matter is certainly horrific, in that it deals with the colonial brutality of the British army in Tasmania, circa the 19th Century. The plot concerns Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish woman deported for stealing, who has since served her sentence and come under the authority of army lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Clafin). She is overdue her release papers, but Hawkins is reluctant to give them to her. When she asks him again, he rapes her. Clare’s husband, a former convict, tries to intercede on her behalf, but he and their young baby are murdered. Clare is raped again, and then again by another soldier under Hawkins’s command.
Beaten and left for dead, when she awakens Clare discovers Hawkins is heading north through the bush, to try and obtain a captaincy in a different town. With nothing left to lose, she embarks on a mission of vengeance, having hired Tasmanian Aboriginal Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) as a guide. At first she treats him with the same racist attitudes typical of the other whites. However, over time they develop a grudging respect and bond, in between violent encounters, atrocities, more rape, more murder, and some disturbing nightmare sequences.
As you can tell, this is fierce stuff. Some have dismissed the film an old fashioned rape revenge thriller dressed as something artier, but that is a very simplistic viewpoint. For one thing, The Nightingale is almost as much about the appalling history of the British in Tasmania, and their treatment of the Aboriginals, as it is about Clare’s quest for bloody revenge. It’s also clear (to me at least) that Kent has one eye on the present, given current debates around sexual violence. However, it is also fair to say this isn’t a particularly subtle film, nor should it be. The injustice and outrage proves an effectively blunt instrument in driving the narrative to it’s inevitable conclusion, even though it is perhaps a shade too long in places.
Despite the unremittingly dark subject matter, The Nightingale features excellent Academy aspect ratio cinematography (courtesy of Radek Ladczuk) which shows off the bleak but beautiful bush country to great effect. Further counterpoint to all the ugliness is provided by Franciosi’s remarkable and committed lead performance. Despite her determination and righteous fury, there is also an underlying desperation for kindness and humanity to be found in the world, even as she is put through the wringer. Her companion Billy likewise shares this hope, and on occasion they discover it (a kindly older couple who provide shelter and treat Billy as an equal, for instance). There are just enough of these glimmers of light to prevent The Nightingale from becoming depressing and despairing in an unconvincing way.
All that said, my original warning is worth heeding. At the screening I attended, there were at least three walk-outs, so if you do decide to see this, brace yourself. You’re in for a rough, shocking, but compelling and ultimately rewarding experience.
UK Certificate: 18
US Certificate: R
Content warnings: Prolonged and graphic scenes of violence, sexual violence, and very strong language.