THE NIGHTINGALE (Directed by Jennifer Kent, 136 minutes, AUS, 2019)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC After wowing Sundance in 2014 with The Babadook, Australian director Jennifer Kent had Hollywood knocking down her door. But instead of going more mainstream, Kent opted for a much darker, more personal take on a bit of Australian history largely unknown to most non-Aussie audiences. The Nightingale is a western set in 1825 that is bitingly relevant to present day America in the wake of the #metoo movement. Set in Tasmania during the brutal British colonization of The Land Down Under known as the “The Black War,” a bloody guerilla conflict between the British colonists and Aboriginal Australians, the film is based on historical accounts and told through the eyes of those that endured violence in the name or progress. During its festival run, The Nightingale sparked controversy and spurred walkouts due to its unflinching portrayal of racism and violence.
In the early 19th Century, Australia was a British Empire penal colony where prisoners were shipped to serve out their sentences in indentured servitude, never to return home. The film’s protagonist is Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a 21-year-old Irish convict who recently completed her seven year sentence and is now attempting to secure her release from her master, British Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Clare, known as The Nightingale thanks to her singing voice, is held captive by the abusive Hawkins who refuses to let her go. When Hawkins is denied a promotion because of rumored transgressions against the young woman in his charge, he shows up one-night drunk at Clare’s with some soldiers who proceed to rape her and kill her family, leaving her for dead.
When Clare tells the Lieutenant’s superiors what happened, they are skeptical. It’s not simply because she is a convict, but Irish and a woman as well. When Hawkins flees the village and heads north to take a new post, Clare pursues him to exact her revenge. This will be no easy feat given that the island riven by war and teaming with hostile wildlife, criminals and the indigenous. Clare hires an Aboriginal guide named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who calls himself “The Blackbird” to guide her way under the guise of “finding her husband.” Because they can only communicate in the language of their oppressors they tell each other the story of their struggle through songs in their native tongue. These lyrical moments lend some much needed humanity to the bleak story.
While we have seen iterations of this story before, it has rarely been told by someone who would suffered under the tyranny of the colonizers, which gives the story a much more authentic voice. It doesn’t try to make anyone into a heroes or a savior because it’s too busy making the point that while we may be more civilized today, racism, sexism and brutality is woven into the fabric of our DNA. The journey of the two outsiders and how they connect in their loss is what ultimately drives the story as the pair wend their way north in pursuit of Hawkins who leaves a trail of carnage in his wake. There will be blood, to be sure, but the story doesn’t end like you would expect, which is one more thing that makes this film as great as it is.
The Nightingale isn’t an easy watch, but it rewards those brave enough to endure it. Kent, here turns in a sophomore effort that solidifies her as a powerful voice in film thanks to not only her vision, but the fearless performances led by Aisling Franciosi that is simply gut-wrenching to watch. Kent has made a film that solidifies her status as a powerful storytelling voice in film thanks in no small part to a fearless performance by Aisling Franciosi that is simply gut-wrenching to watch. Sam Claflin is the lynchpin as a cruel and controlling heavy with a lot going on underneath the handsome bad boy exterior. Like Aisling he’s not afraid to go to some very dark places for his character and their back and forth creates a harrowing dynamic that is rarely explored in stories of abuse. The Nightingale is a grim masterwork that, in the process of showing us how far the human race has not come, lets us know there is still the possibility of salvation down this path.
JENNIFER KENT’S THE NIGHTINGALE NOW PLAYING @ RITZ 5< /a>