As cliched a saying as “not for the faint of heart” is, especially when it’s thrown around for films that ultimately prove far more accessible than we’re led to believe, The Nightingale very much defines the phrase. Somehow bypassing a local R18+ classification in Australia (it honestly baffles me that a film of this ilk that features no less than three rape sequences was granted an MA15+ rating), Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to the acclaimed horror feature The Babadook is a harrowing, visceral genre piece that adopts something of a Western temperament but roots itself firmly within the confines of horror.
Despite the aforementioned rape sequences, as well as a shocking moment depicting the murder of an infant, The Nightingale is one of the year’s most brilliant efforts. Polarising without question, and the muted colour pallet Kent adopts, not to mention the lack of a traditional music score, result in a near-immersive experience that only further highlights its grisly subject matter, but what she has created is nothing short of staggering.
The story itself is one that easily could have forayed into a typical tale of revenge (ala I Spit On Your Grave) but Kent refuses to adhere to the expected. As one of the more unusual heroines of recent years, Aisling Franciosi’s Clare has our heart and sympathy from the very moment she appears on screen. At first a seemingly gentle girl who wants nothing more than to live peacefully with her husband (Michael Sheasby) and their newborn, as an Irish convict in 1820’s Tasmania she’s an indentured servant to an army officer (Sam Claflin’s Hawkins), we witness firsthand her kind yet stern demeanour be violently stripped away as a drunken visit from her benefactor and his two right-hands results in her husband and child’s savage murder.
Violated and left for dead, Clare seeks to avenge her family’s death, travelling deep into the wilderness with an Aboriginal tracker (Baykali Ganambarr’s Billy) as her guide. As emotionally invested in her plight as we are, Kent’s bold script never paints in strokes that are uniformly black and white as Clare, being very much a product of the time, is quite racist herself, so as much as she needs Billy to help her, as an audience member you become quite torn due to her initial vile behaviour. Similarly, Billy is just as reluctant to guide her through, being one of the few survivors of the near-genocide of his people at the hands of officers like Hawkins; if the film promises any moments of levity it’s in their mutual overcoming of the ingrained hatred instilled within.
Much like the road travelled by Clare and Billy, The Nightingale is a journey not for the faint of heart. There are many arguments to be made towards the film in regards to its violent and sexual content, and whether or not it’s absolutely necessary to depict such acts in the graphic manner it does, but Kent’s brutal imagery never feels like it’s been presented for the sake of it. This is a story that demands an emotional reaction, and whether that be one of understanding or anger, The Nightingale is undoubtedly a movie that stays with you.
About The Nightingale
Set in 1825, Clare, a young Irish convict woman, chases a British officer through the rugged Tasmanian wilderness, bent on revenge for a terrible act of violence he committed against her family. On the way she enlists the services of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy, who is also marked by trauma from his own violence-filled past.
The Nightingale (MA15+) is screening in Australian theatres from August 29th 2019.