Tasmania, 1825. Former convict Clare’s life is destroyed after a gruelling act of violence against her family by British soldiers. She is forced to enlist the help of an Indigenous tracker named Billy to trek across the wilderness in pursuit of the only thing that matters – revenge.
Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent, four years after her surprise worldwide hit The Babadook, returns with a harrowing tale of patriarchy and revenge. Themes evident in Kent’s first film, including the effect of trauma on women’s mental health, abound in The Nightingale too. But this time around, Kent handles her work with a great deal more restraint and sophistication. That’s not to say the film is in anyway reserved. In fact, its grim sexual violence has caused audience members to walk out of screenings worldwide. The difference here is that The Nightingale’s worst moments are forced on viewers, involving us so we are unable to turn away, while this is merely hinted at in The Babadook. Kent then shows her characters’ pain subtly – a powerful combo. The effect is an uncompromising film that reels us in from the start and assaults us with the sins of Australia’s colonial past. It’s unwatchable at times – but totally intriguing.
Despite The Nightingale being distinctly period, it offers many parallels to modern society (much like another recent hit on Australia’s social history, Sweet Country). While you may struggle to find anyone as downright nasty as the brutish Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), the demeaning, sexually charged masculine behaviour is uncomfortably close to what we still see today. Similarly, the film’s treatment of Indigenous, while accurate of the time, is horrific and shows the extent to which these peoples suffered at the hands of the British Empire. It’s also a reminder of Australia’s ongoing issues with building bridges between Indigenous Australians and modern society. There is no doubt that these crucial aspects of The Nightingale will make it a staple in film classes for the next decade.
But, just as importantly, the film was gritty and compelling. The premise was exciting, the storytelling rich, the direction decisive (mostly). Kent’s sole weakness seems to be her inability to tie up narratives with a satisfying ending. The Babadook’s was laughable, and while The Nightingale doesn’t suffer the same fate, it has too many false endings in a sagging final 30 minutes robbing the film of its slow-burn momentum. However, this is a minor issue when you look at the prior 90 minutes. The film’s impeccable pacing, switching seamlessly between protagonist Clare’s foot-by-foot pursuit of Hawkins and spurts of intense action, keep us on the edge of our seats, even with the surprisingly long run time.
On that point, the acting is another real highlight of The Nightingale. Aisling Franciosi seems effortless in her tough lead role – the awful tragedy her character goes through must have been gruelling to portray, and she pulls it off. Claflin is at his smarmy and savage height as the intensely dislikeable Hawkins, and Baykali Ganambarr provides well-needed moments of light relief as Clare’s guide Billy. However, Ganambarr captures his own character’s tough past impeccably alongside Franciosi, and this pair give the film its true heart and soul – as brutal as that is for viewers.
The Nightingale is a tough watch from start to finish. Excellent directing, acting, and scripting, but the gritty violence means it’s not for the faint of heart. 8/10.