The Nightingale refuses to shy away from the brutality of colonialism
Jennifer Kent is the writer-director who brought us the chilling psychological horror thriller The Babadook. While modest, this excellent film demonstrated the filmmaker’s ability to expand the underlying vision of her promising short film into a full expression.
Without The Babadook, there wouldn’t be The Nightingale, now streaming on Showmax, the much-anticipated follow up to Kent’s critically acclaimed horror debut. Taking the niche success of the mother-son psychological thriller, she‘s found her voice as a director, uncompromising in her art and fearlessly committed to unearthing passion projects.
Small but powerful
The title “The Nightingale” gives us only an inkling of what to expect, named after a small bird whose beautiful and powerful song has inspired poems, fairy tales, songs, opera and, now, a film. The real “nightingale” of the film is a young Irish convict in 1825 Tasmania called Clare, whose melodious and stirring singing voice wins her favour among a legion of British soldiers led by an officer called Hawkins.
After suffering unspeakable acts and witnessing her young family’s death at Hawkins’s hands, Clare sets off on a personal crusade to avenge them. Together with the help of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy, the two hunt down Hawkins and his rogue British troop.
Refusing to shrink into the shadows
The Nightingale is a fierce adventure-drama-thriller that’s a challenging viewing experience. There’s little to no idealisation at play with Kent representing the colonialism of Australia in its ugliest form. The red coats command power while the convict colony and indigenous peoples are beholden to them.
The powerful and visceral symbol of rape is carried through by the savage imperialist act of expanding the empire into “virgin” territory. Refusing to shrink into the shadows, Clare decides to chase down and exact revenge on the men that stole her once promising future.
A commanding cast
Aisling Franciosi is the fearless actress who plays Clare in a challenging and demanding lead performance. While relatively unknown, Franciosi has stature and embodies the qualities of the vulnerable yet spirited nightingale who survives terrible ordeals, single-mindedly commits to her new mission and risks everything to take a potshot at Hawkins and his men. It’s a gutsy and stirring turn for the young star
She’s ably supported by the likable Baykali Ganambarr as Billy, who serves as her reluctant yet faithful guide. Enjoying excellent and believable chemistry, Francisosi and Ganambarr’s uneasy partnership slowly overcomes racial and cultural barriers as their missions and spirits align.
An unlikely but excellent star as the villain
Films with great heroes need equally strong villains, and Sam Claflin is just brilliant as Hawkins. As the only big-name star of the movie, his acting career is flourishing with many great supporting roles in Me Before You, Adrift, Journey’s End and Enola Holmes. His choosing to adopt the role of such a despicable man could have spelled career suicide – instead, it speaks to Claflin’s character and talent as an actor, showing his commitment to the craft and his courage.
This explosive trio of performances help Kent anchor The Nightingale in her deeply political and uncompromising portrayal. Helping her realise the characters, they serve as pillars to offer a focussed, unfettered and naturalistic vantage point.
The players are embedded in the lush natural vegetation and forests of Tasmania, which offer a sweeping poetic beauty beneath the turmoil. This is carried through by unpretentious cinematography and an earthy soundtrack.
Much like Clare, Kent is bold and unflinching in her vision, summoning an uncommon beauty in the dark hearts of men and dormant cruelty within humanity.
Raw and filled with rage
Kent sacrifices mainstream appeal in favour of powering home a visceral and intensely brutal depiction of colonialism in Australia. She could have glossed over the history with a rose-tinted lens to offer a gripping pursuit adventure.
Instead we bear witness to the atrocities of a seemingly lawless society where imperial British troops treat others as disposable objects. An unflinching examination of revenge and violence, Kent summons up rage and raw emotional power in her audience. It’s a harrowing and gut-wrenching watch, but speaks to the injustices of the past and their reverberations in the present.
This movie is not for everyone
It’s difficult to identify a specific audience for The Nightingale, given the severity of prejudice and violence. While this makes us question the level of brutality, the film still feels necessary and important. Film and history have a strange relationship as filmmakers use the power of illusion to bring the past alive. Wielding great power and responsibility in the sheer act of reimagining or reinterpreting, filmmakers may be tempted to downplay the raw realities.
This is what makes Kent’s ferocious retelling so horrific, overpowering the tendency to forgive, romanticise or sanitise history. Much like Clare, Kent is bold and unflinching in her vision, summoning an uncommon beauty in the dark hearts of men and dormant cruelty within humanity.
The Nightingale is brutal, and yet, at the core of the central relationship, hope still finds a way to well up amid all the bloodshed and tragedy. This is what helps redeem the film’s bloodlust as the nightingale’s haunting song threads its way through this vivid, powerful and unsettling period-adventure drama-thriller.