THE STORY – One night in 1820s Tasmania, Clare, a young Irish convict, loses everything she holds dear after her family is horrifically attacked. She’s immediately driven to track down and seek revenge against the British officer who oversaw the horror, so she enlists the service of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy. Marked by trauma from his own violence-filled past, Billy reluctantly agrees to take her through the interior of Tasmania. On this brutal quest for blood, Clare gets much more than she bargained for.
THE CAST – Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood & Ewen Leslie
THE TEAM – Jennifer Kent (Directors/Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 136 Minutes
By Will Mavity
A snarling Aisling Franciosi drives this merciless revenge thriller through the unforgiving land of 19th-century Tasmania, a time when British colonists nearly decimated Aboriginal Tasmanians. With horrors around every corner, Jennifer Kent’s new nightmare will traumatize the weak of heart. However, those who are willing to endure the most brutal film of its kind since “12 Years A Slave,” will discover a majestic achievement most striking in its haunting moments of grace.
After helming 2014’s breakout Sundance hit, “The Babadook,” it would have been easy for Jennifer Kent to fall back on yet another horror film. Instead, she returns to Sundance with a film that, while horrifying, is a different beast entirely. A ruthless, unflinching tale of violence and revenge set in 19th Century Australia.
Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is serving out a prison sentence in Australia (then a penal colony) alongside her husband and infant son. She slaves away cleaning and cooking during the day for a garrison of soldiers, while being forced to sexually assaulted at night by the troops’ feckless but ambitious leader, Hawkins (Sam Claflin) who holds the key to her freedom. When even greater tragedy strikes, Clare vows revenge and joins with a native tracker (Baykali Ganambarr) to hunt the perpetrators across the Australian bush.
“The Nightingale” is in many ways a difficult film to evaluate because it is constructed to be deliberately difficult to watch. The film features three graphic on-screen rape scenes along with graphic stabbings, shootings, and child murder. In addition, the film is deliberately agonizingly paced, full of scenes that seemingly go nowhere and nightmares sequences that do little more than add to the bleak mood. All of the above are conscious choices made by Jennifer Kent. The film is meant to be a tough watch that emphasizes the hardship facing women in minorities at the time, but your mileage may vary as to whether or not you can endure watching the film.
Kent’s film clearly stems from a deep (and righteous) sense of anger, exploring the relevant as ever themes of sexual violence in society. At some point, the film’s villains become downright one dimensional, but doing so serves a broader purpose of illustrating white male inhumanity during the period. But the film digs deeper than merely being a revenge fantasy. Instead, it is an exploration of mercy and humanity as a whole. And the film is keen to emphasize that there were many victims of the colonial inhumanity: women, Irish, blacks, and children. As such, Kent also uses the film to dig into the death of native culture wrought by colonialism. The film is a mourning cry for the humanity lost in the colonization of Australia. And while Kent certainly deeply explores these subject, she does so with the subtlety of a mallet. But perhaps, that is what such weighty material required.
Aside from the film’s rich (if blunt) exploration of the wrongs wrought by white male colonists, Kent’s technical direction is the film’s other shining achievement. The camera constantly moves, inching our heroes to their goals. Meanwhile, cinematographer Radek Ladczuk lenses the Australian terrain with a gorgeous sense of style, showcasing the woodlands, mountains, and mists. Individual sequences are well edited, especially the film’s opening montage, even if the overall pacing of the film is slow. And of course, Kent draws a masterful lead performance from Aisling Franciosi. Just as with “The Revenant,” a nature revenge film only works as well as its lead actor. And fortunately, Franciosi brings a raw passion to the proceedings. The supporting cast also delivers strong performances (although as mentioned above, Claflin becomes almost comically evil by the end).
In short, “The Nightingale” is not for everyone. It is a brutal and unpleasant watch, and undeniably unsubtle, but Kent is an important voice, and the film’s anger and subsequent compassion, is more relevant than ever today.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Strong lead performance and direction. Righteous skewering of pompous heterosexual white males.
THE BAD – Incredibly long and slow. Brutal and difficult to watch.