The Nightingale is only writer/director Jennifer Kent’s second film after the critically lauded The Babadook back in 2014. With such a successful debut behind her, there has been a lot of anticipation as to what Kent would deliver next. She doesn’t disappoint.
Set during the Black War in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), The Nightingale follows the story of Clare Carroll (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict who works as a servant to the British Army under the command of Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Desperate to receive a letter of recommendation that would allow her husband and child freedom, Clare is at the mercy of Hawkins, who takes a diabolical shine to her. When Hawkins commits the most heinous acts of violence on her family, Clare employs Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal tracker to assist in her retribution against Hawkins and his men across the harsh wilderness.
To say that The Nightingale is an uncomfortable watch is an understatement. It’s set at a time when women were considered subhuman, made all the more terrifying by the fact that they are stuck on the colonial island of Tasmania during the ethnic cleansing of the Aboriginal natives. This was an extremely dark time in British-Australian history that has practically been forgotten. Kent sought collaboration from the Tasmanian Aboriginal elders to ensure its authenticity when recounting some of the atrocities depicted on-screen. You can feel the anxiety crashing around you, figuratively and metaphorically.
During The Nightingale’s festival runs in 2018, audiences found the visceral imagery hard to stomach and felt that the violence, and in particular, the sexual violence was being exploited to sensationalise the film’s message. The violence is unflinching but sheds any rape-revenge exploitation conventions you may think it would carry through its runtime. The Nightingale elevates itself above these labels. It’s challenging because, despite being set two centuries ago, it evokes a lot of the moral and social injustices that are still being fought today. Women’s rights, racism, western privilege, social standing, toxic masculinity – it’s all there begging you to ask why we haven’t transcended these prejudices all these years later. Outside of its core revenge story there is an air of timely importance that couldn’t be more poignant.
Kent’s story is full of restrained rage. Clare is determined to exact revenge, yet she’s been conditioned to obey, and when she does catch up with her tormentors on several occasions (scenes that will leave you screaming), there is an air of trepidation that stops Clare in her tracks. This is a worryingly observant nod to victims of abuse and really hammers the hallmarks home. When Clare is with Billy she asserts her new-found authority (nicely contrasted with her interactions with Hawkins), displaying her own prejudices that are challenged during the duration of The Nightingale as a stark realisation dawns; they are essentially experiencing the same torment. Billy and Claire represent the enslaved at this point in history, toying with their own moral obligations as they conflict with their desire for revenge.
Ultimately though, what they want more than anything is to live in peace. Clare and Billy are wonderfully portrayed by Franciosi and Ganambarr, who evolve naturally from bickering siblings to the endearing and bittersweet companions caught in the most awful of situations. Hawkins on the other hand is easily one of the vilest antagonists seen in a long time, an amalgamation of almost everything wrong with the human race, with Claflin giving a convincing performance that has echoes of Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List.
The Nightingale really shows a leap in Kent’s talent as a director. Tasmania is beautifully captured in all its vast, desolate glory, yet Kent has managed to make it still feel as claustrophobic and oppressive as Claire’s predicament. This is particularly evident in scenes set in woodland, and when night falls and Clare’s torment is manifested in vivid night terrors you can see Kent’s horror influences shining through once again. Despite The Nightingale not traditionally being classed as a horror, you could argue that it’s far more horrifying than The Babadook. What Kent achieves in terms of tone and story is akin to a Hollywood Western that is very un-Hollywood. The Nightingale is unrelenting, not only in its portrayal of violence but in its emotional toll, such that it leans closer to another Australian-Western counterpart, The Proposition (directed by John Hillcoat).
Kent’s sophomore effort will almost certainly not be for everyone. It’s a brutal depiction of a time that has much been left virtually untold. With its themes of sexual violence, misogynistic oppression and xenophobia laid out bare, The Nightingale is a tough watch that warrants attention in a time where culturally we still have a way to go – sometimes we need to unearth our past to look for our future.