The last we had seen from Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent was the 2014 horror sensation, The Babadook. After its success, it was only natural to anticipate her next cinematic offering. What she delivered was probably far from anyone’s expectations. The Nightingale is nightmarish, yes, but in a completely separate way. Kent manages to deliver a familiar revenge tale in a fashion that viewers won’t see coming.
The film takes place in early 19th century Australia, where Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish mother, is a prisoner of British officers. Her inquiries of the overdue release of her family, husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and their infant child, to the British Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) lead to a violent rape. Aidan learns about the incident and attempts to confront the British Officer, leading to an act of gruesome violence where he and their baby meet the fate of Hawkins and his men. In order to get her revenge, Clare sets off to find the officers, who have now escaped, with the help of an Aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). The two very different protagonists learn on the way that they have far too much in common and both have a fight to be won.
At surface level, The Nightingale comes off as a traditional revenge story. And in certain ways, it is. But the way the story is crafted and the way Kent portrays the hardships brought forth upon the characters set it apart from anything in this critic’s memory. What will be immediately striking that shakes the audience to its core is the graphic violence and prolonged rape scenes. To put it lightly, the scenes are rough. There is not much any review or any spread of word of mouth can do to prepare the viewer for seeing these scenes, making the film very disturbing to watch.
With that being said, the scenes are not gratuitous. They are not included for reasons of torture porn or exploitation. They have a rather specific purpose, and that is to truly accentuate what prisoners were subjected to during that period of time. Some moments in history such as that The Nightingale depicts are too awful to comprehend and it is hard for anyone to fully understand the nature of their brutality by simply reading or hearing about them. While it may be upsetting and at some times even stomach-churning to see a film like Kent’s, it can be beneficial in coming to terms with and understanding the horrors of history.
While its depictions of violence may be what The Nightingale is primarily remembered for, these scenes are not what defines the film. Ultimately, the film is a much needed critique on British colonialism and the barbaric ways in which it established control over countries. A redemption tale that is just as important for our Irish protagonist as it is for our Tasmanian one. Kent dives into the psychology of these two victims and what it means to enact revenge- whether it is worth the fight or whether it proves you’re no better than your perpetrators.
The Nightingale excels in almost every way, from Kent’s meticulous direction to the film’s sweeping cinematography and precise editing. Though it’s a gut-wrenching depiction of Tasmania’s past, it is photographed beautifully and hauntingly. Its performances are definitely of note, particularly in the two leads as well as the main villain. Franciosi gives what might be one of the most complex performances of the year, depicting just about every emotion out there with precision and professionalism. Ganambarr tugs at our heartstrings with his character’s backstory and provides some much, much needed comedic relief in a few scenes. Claflin and Damon Herriman (as Ruse) play far-too-convincing villains, the kind the audience will find truly despicable – the mark of truly great actors.
When it comes down to it, the strange thing about The Nightingale is that it is not a breath of fresh air. Revenge tales have been told before and they will most certainly be told after. But the way in which it is executed is what sets the film apart from the others. Kent’s latest offering is an emotionally exhausting one that will anger some viewers and most likely push others away from seeing her film. But those who make it to the end of The Nightingale will have seen a haunting film that will stick with them for days after they’ve left the theater.