‘The Nightingale:’ Retribution down under
Writer/producer/director Jennifer Kent scared up an impressive horror hit with her 2014 debut The Babadook. Her sophomore feature, a rugged period-piece called The Nightingale, is in many ways more horrific – because its horrors are well within the realm of credibility, if not outright historical fact.
The setting is Tasmania, circa 1825, when the British held sway over Australia. Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is a young Irish woman convicted of theft and sentenced to servitude. The terms of her sentence have expired, but the British authorities are in no hurry to parole her. When she requests her freedom from Lt. Hawkins (Sam Claflin), he not only refuses but brutally rapes her. Then he and a few of his men murder her husband and baby before her very eyes.
It is this turn of events that fuels Clare’s quest for vengeance, which she pursues with obsessive single-mindedness. She recruits Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), a native tracker who has no love for the British (who have systematically massacred his people) and embarks on an arduous journey across a punishing landscape to mete out retribution.
Drenched in period atmosphere and steeped in dread, The Nightingale is not for the faint-hearted, and its earliest screenings were marked by walk-outs. Yet, there’s a method to Kent’s blunt approach, as it sheds light on the racial divide of the era. As Clare is Irish and a convict, and because Billy is an Aborigine, they are both regarded as less than human. Indeed, early on even Clare refers to Billy as “boy,” until she comes to realize that he, too, has suffered at the hands of the occupying British, in ways very comparable to her.
There’s a distinct Western motif here, both in period and narrative structure. The Nightingale invites comparisons – and not unfavorable ones – to John Ford’s 1956 classic The Searchers, and there are echoes of Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958), particularly in the relationship that develops between Clare and Billy.
Aside from a supporting role in Jimmy’s Hall (2014), most of Franciosi’s prior exposure has been on the small screen, but that’s likely to change given her explosive turn here. It’s impossible not to empathize with the character, even at her most violent. This marks Ganambarr’s screen debut, and he plays Billy with assurance, bringing a jaded but unmistakable dignity to the role. Claflin, playing one of the year’s most loathsome screen villains, is seething with brutality and violence. He’s not only a racist and a rapist, but a psychopath, justifying his sadistic actions by the uniform he wears and the rank he holds. He is a monster who is frighteningly believable.
The film, however, does tend to meander, particularly in the third act when it should be accelerating toward the finish. Kent occasionally indulges in directorial flourishes (notably some dream sequences) that seems rather arbitrary.
Nevertheless, The Nightingale is a harrowing journey into the heart of darkness, hard to forget and impossible to ignore. It proves that Kent is a filmmaker to be reckoned with, one unafraid to challenge or even goad an audience into a reaction, whether positive or negative. This is not a film for everyone, nor is it a perfect film, but it is a film with something powerful to say.
(In English, Aboriginal, and Scottish Gaelic with English subtitles)
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2019, Mark Burger.