After The Babadook, Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent would have been forgiven for striking the iron while it was hot and following her celebrated feature debut with another horror movie. Instead, Kent has gone quite a different direction. For her follow-up feature, Kent has decided to focus on one of the darkest chapters of her country’s history involving the British hold over Australia in the 1800s. The results may be more of a thriller, but there’s no denying the horror elements at play in her brutal tale of rage and revenge in the 19th Century Bush.
Set during the Van Diemen’s Land’s Black War on the island that would come to be called Tasmania, the film follows Irish convict, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), who has more than served her time but is still under the clutches of the callous Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who refuses to grant her freedom and abuses her both physically and sexually, despite the fact that she now also has a husband and newborn child. When a terrible act of brutality from the Lieutenant and his men leaves Clare alone, she heads out on a mission of revenge across the dangerous Bush, where she enlists the help of an Aboriginal tracker by the name of Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), a man who has his own violent past associated with the British aggressors in his country.
The Nightingale approaches its history with a very serious and downbeat intent. Kent is clearly driven to produce a story that shines a glaring spotlight on the ugly, violent and despicable actions of British soldiers who invaded and colonised Australia and its neighbouring islands. Kent’s rage at this rarely discussed history, closely matches the rage of her heroine, a rage which often gets the better of the film itself and leaves it scrambling to find some hope amongst the chaos.
The film very much strips away a lot of its own soul in the first 20 minutes, in which we witness Clare fall from dutiful servant with a beautiful voice to a victim of vicious abuse all within a first act designed to shock and bring you down and drain you emotionally along with Clare. When the revenge tale kicks in, it is a drawn-out journey across the treacherous outback, once again characterised by brutal violence, misogyny, racism and frankly any other despicable trait that mankind has displayed in history.
The journey becomes about searching for a soul in a landscape populated with figures who want nothing more but to tear you down. That search for a soul threatens to steal the film of its own soul, and that journey can often feel a little meandering as the film rarely offers a ray of light amongst the foggy hills of the Tasmanian wilderness. It provides more graphic details and imagery when it ends up becoming more of a film about the oppression of the indigenous Aboriginal Australians at the heart of the conflict, with the film shifting much of its focus away from Clare’s trauma and more into a two-hander with Billy’s. Many violent actions are depicted, and while the film feels enraged, it rarely probes the history it’s choosing to display.
Nowhere is this feeling more present than in the character of Lieutenant Hawkins. While Claflin puts in an incredibly dedicated performance (you’ll never look at Finnick the same way again), he can’t rise above what is ultimately quite a two-dimensional character, who comes to be defined only by a series of horrible and violent acts. The characters in history he represents quite rightly don’t deserve any sympathy, but the film is robbed of more complexity by refusing to have these violent oppressors used as anything else other than figures of bloody terror, which in turn makes the villains feel more generic than anything else.
Where the film really finds its soul is in the dynamic between Clare and Billy. Their shared trauma from two different perspectives of the conflict that has diseased this land makes for compelling viewing. It is the beautifully played dynamic between the captivating Aisling Franciosi and the charismatic Baykali Ganambarr that helps you along on the journey, with their growing mutual respect acting as a reprieve from the bleakness that characterises the story, all until the pain becomes too hard to ignore.
The Nightingale can on occasion be a very beautiful and compellingly told tale of a dark history, delivered with a sense of fury and anger that more than makes it searing and distinctive. Yet, in its rage, it threatens to lose sight of its audience, as many will likely struggle to find much of anything to hold onto in this grim, anxiety-driven thriller. Thankfully, there are two thoroughly captivating performances at its centre that holds your attention across its brutalist, although never gratuitous, landscape. Without them, this would be a hard journey to recommend, but with them this is a look at a chapter in history that should not be forgotten.
Dir: Jennifer Kent
Scr: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie, Michael Sheasby
Prd: Kristina Ceyton, Steve Hutensky, Jennifer Kent, Bruna Papandrea
DoP: Radek Ladczuk
Music: Jed Kurzel
Runtime: 136 mins
The Nightingale is in UK cinemas from November 29th.