Raw, provocative ‘Nightingale’ is powerful — but not for the faint of heart

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 9/5/19

As both a historical drama and revenge thriller, “The Nightingale” isn’t perfect, but it is powerful and provocative.

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Raw, provocative ‘Nightingale’ is powerful — but not for the faint of heart

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Aisling Franciosi stars in 'The Nightingale.'
Aisling Franciosi stars in 'The Nightingale.'
Photo courtesy of IFC Films
Posted

Filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s feature film directorial debut, “The Babadook,” was a supernatural horror film. The setting and subject-matter of “The Nightingale,” Kent’s much-anticipated follow-up, is even more horrific. Kent’s raw, revealing portrait of humankind’s most awful proclivity for racial, sexual and economic cruelty finds a fertile setting in the penal colonies and Aboriginal massacres of 19th century Tasmania. It also stands as a paradigm for the nobility of confronting injustice, no matter the level of evil or the costs of doing so.

The film is set on Van Diemen’s Land (now called Tasmania) during the mid-19th century Black War, a genocidal incursion in which British imperialists and colonists forcibly moved and massacred nearly all of the island’s indeigenous Aboriginal Australians. Against this backdrop, Clare (Aisling Franciosi, “Game of Thrones”) lives and works as an indentured servant, an Irish convict relocated with her husband Aidan and infant child to the island’s penal colony to serve under a stationed British Army unit commanded by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Clare long ago earned her letter of recommendation for discharge, but Hawkins selfishly keeps her under his abusive charge. That doesn’t sit well with Aidan, who accosts and embarrasses Hawkins in a futile attempt to change his mind about giving Clare her freedom. The episode also dissuades a visiting commanding officer from recommending Hawkins for his captaincy.

Hawkins decides to take two officers and journey through the treacherous bush to the town of Launceston, where Hawkins will appeal for his promotion. Before departing, Hawkins and his men visit Clare and Aiden, imposing unspeakable brutality against her and her family. The next day, when her official complaints go unheeded, a shocked yet suddenly resolute Clare sets out to pursue Hawkins and his men in order to exact her own vengeance. Still viewed as a white wench in a harsh land, she employs the aid of a tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), a young Aboriginal who abhors whites but also desires to travel north and reunite with the surviving members of his tribe.

Despite her understandable antipathy towards the British, Clare can’t shake her ingrained fear and loathing towards “the blacks.” She brands Billy “boy,” and both she and her friends worry Billy might betray and eat her. As their journey into the heart of darkness unfolds, Clare and Billy discover they are bound by tragedy and a common oppressor. Meanwhile, Hawkins and company pillage their way across the island, murdering, maurauding, and raping along the way.

They ensnare an elderly Aboriginal named Charlie as their tracker, then kidnap an indiegenous woman as their sex slave. You can’t find a more reprehensible movie villain than Hawkins — indeed, that label feels too kind. The atrocities in “The Nightingale” are too widespread to specifiy, and the incidents of rape are too numerous to recount. Early screenings of the film in Europe and Australia have been marred by audience invective and mass walkouts. The film isn’t for the faint of heart, but it is for viewers who embrace Kent’s allegiance to authenticity. There’s no easy or honest way to sugar-coat the savagery of this feral setting, and Kent deserves plaudits for not shirking from a stark, earnest examination.

Indeed, where “The Nightingale” falters is during its more mundane moments. The burgeoning rapport between Clare and Billy is handled well, and their evolving relationship is central to the story’s redemptive arc. Still, there’s an air of banality around the basic buddy road trip construct, no matter the bleak circumstances surrounding it. It remains a series of misadventures and lessons learned, culminating with the inevitable clash with the objects of their ire.

Still, despite Clare’s revenge quest, Kent never turns her into The Bride from “Kill Bill,” or else something she’s not. Clare doesn’t instantly transform from victim to avenging angel, and despite every horrible wrong heaped upon her and every act of retribution she wants to (and does) commit, a peaceful soul continues to tug at her core. She doesn’t want to become her enemy, and it’s actually her embrace of Billy that becomes each other’s path to salvation and reckoning.

As both a historical drama and revenge thriller, “The Nightingale” isn’t perfect, but it is powerful and provocative.

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