Jennifer Kent ups the ante to the extreme for her second feature, establishing herself as a masterful force to be reckoned with.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
In Tasmania, 1825, a 21-year-old Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is kept prisoner by British Officer Hawkins (Sam Claflin). She is forced to be his ‘nightingale’ and sing as entertainment for his military outfit. The solace she finds in her husband and newborn baby is completely shattered when Hawkins and his cronies brutally rape Clare and murder her family in front of her. A broken woman with nothing left but rage in her blood, she acquires the help of Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal tracker, to hunt down the soldiers through the unforgiving wilderness and exact her bloody revenge.
As Jennifer Kent’s long-awaited follow-up to the chilling and brilliant The Babadook, her sophomore feature The Nightingale is a whole different breed of horror film. This isn’t about the horrors that go bump in the night or manifest in the mind. These are the horrors of what humans are capable of doing to each other, and more specifically, what they actually did in our own country’s history. It’s with this graphic depiction of the atrocities committed that Kent’s second film could be considered an important and possibly culturally significant one, even if its content means it probably won’t be screened in high school history classes.
Make no mistake, The Nightingale is a massively confronting and at times genuinely very upsetting watch. A number of people walked out of my screening alone in the first half hour, which has nothing on the thirty or so who caused an uproar at its Sydney premiere. While it’s easy enough to advocate toughing through the brutality for an enriching experience (which this is), there is a limit that this pushes even for hardened viewers. Sometimes it’s better to accept that this level of savagery is not for everyone, even if it is ‘honest’ and ‘necessary’.
That’s how the Tasmanian Aboriginal elders who collaborated with Kent on the story describe what is depicted. Anger and misery were no doubt their intended emotions to ignite within the audience.
They’re helped infinitely by a trio of brilliant performances, most impressively from Aisling Franciosi. Most recognisable from The Fall and a minor role on Game of Thrones, she carries all the cruelty and fury of Clare’s journey in one hell of a breakout performance.
Sam Claflin’s loathe-inducing rapist will make you forget all about the hunky goodwill he formed in the likes of The Hunger Games and Me Before You, and previously non-acting Baykali Ganambarr ensures he’ll probably land every indigenous role in Australian cinema’s near-future.
Some of the most beautiful shots of the Aussie outback ever captured are here through Kent’s lens, creating a contrast against the ugly events and helping to distract from a few flaws. There are a few unnecessary lags in momentum along the way that could have been trimmed.
This is very much your basic rape-revenge story. But it’s a rape-revenge story full to the brim with things to say about history and humanity. Kent’s second feature achieves its aim of appreciation, confrontation and division through lavish craft and stunning performances – and is that not what anything artful should do?
The Nightingale is available in Australian cinemas from August 29th
Image courtesy of Transmission Films