Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook is an unflinching, brutal, and relentless depiction of the bleakness of life in the Tasmanian wilderness in the 19th century.
The story follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict trapped in indentured servitude, working for a British officer named Hawkins (Sam Claflin) at a British army outpost. Eager to finally be given the freedom she is due so she can live in peace with her husband and baby daughter, Clare enquires about the prospect, but the cruel and possessive Hawkins refuses to give her the letter of recommendation that would mean her emancipation. Instead, he subjects her to physical and sexual abuse, making it clear he sees her as nothing but an object whose fate he can decide whenever he wants. When Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) finds out and confronts Hawkins, it sets off a chain of events that results in yet more unspeakable violence and puts Clare on a path towards vengeance after her world crumbles around her.
Kent is unflinching when it comes to depicting the horrors that Clare faces, and the extent to which she focuses on scenes of sexual violence and murder was a subject of controversy when it was on the festival circuit, with detractors walking out of screenings in disgust. This, however, is not Kent’s answer to the rape-revenge movies of the past (such as the likes of I Spit On Your Grave) but an earnest attempt to portray the inhumanity and brutality that was prevalent in the Australia of that time, and the way that not only people such as Clare were treated, but also the countless crimes perpetrated upon the native Aboriginal peoples whose land, homes and lives were taken from them in equally cruel and barbaric ways.
In this, The Nightingale is successful. Kent’s raw, naturalistic script is brought to life by her cast. Particularly impressive is Franciosi as Clare, who excels in an incredibly difficult role, providing her with a humanity and identity that become so easy to sympathise with, before portraying how that humanity is taken away from her with equal aplomb. Her transformation from loving and caring to vengeful and shattered is one of the most heartbreaking sights of the film, and a lot of the success of that transformation can be attributed to Franciosi’s ability to inhabit it.
Baykali Ganambarr (making his cinematic debut) is equally impressive as “Billy” Mangana, an Aboriginal man hired by Clare to help her to get revenge on Hawkins, and whose world-weary demeanour and cynical, dour approach to his fate as someone whose home and people have been stripped from him brings its own searing sense of heartbreak. Ganambarr and Franciosi have excellent chemistry on screen, and the film explores how their relationship grows from initial distrust and misunderstanding to a sense of camaraderie in their shared trauma at the hands of the British colonisers. These moments have true power to them, and the way Kent explores how prejudice can shape how a person sees another person, especially when they use those prejudices to dismiss their very real sense of mistreatment and pain, is extremely accomplished.
An extremely proficient film-maker, Kent’s manipulation of the setting of her film is also excellent, and together with cinematographer Radek Ladczuk, she crafts an atmosphere that is just as unforgiving as her narrative. The world of the Tasmanian outback is beautiful, but it is stark, and that sense of scale is used to provide a counterbalance to the very immediate, visceral violence of the film. That environment is boxed in by Kent’s decision to use the much more claustrophobic Academy aspect ratio, which only increases that sense of immediacy, as well as allowing her to paint a picture of her characters’ mental states with ample use of close-up shots to further drive home what the trauma of their lives has done to Clare and Mangana.
There is no doubt that all of these things are impressive, and there is a power and value to the realistic way in which Kent insists on portraying the film’s horrors, but amidst all that there is a small sense that something is not quite working as well as it should. Sam Claflin does a fantastic job in portraying the thoroughly repellent Hawkins, but the whole British army contingent feel more like cogs in the narrative machine by the end, rather than people in and of themselves. This is perhaps a conscious choice on Kent’s part, but it dulls the emotive power of the film a little for them to be quite so generically portrayed. This is maybe why, for certain stretches of the film’s runtime, it loses a little of that visceral sense of intensity, but there is certainly enough here to make The Nightingale a valuable, and important, watch.
Dir: Jennifer Kent
Scr: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Sam Claflin, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie, Michael Sheasby
Prd: Kristina Ceyton, Steve Hutensky, Jennifer Kent, Bruna Papandrea
DoP: Radek Ladczuk
Music: Jed Kurzel
Runtime: 136 mins
The limited-edition Blu-Ray of The Nightingale will be released on February 8th by Second Sight Films