The Nightingale review – Aussie western is a hellish vision of colonialism

Jennifer Kent has followed The Babadook with a relentlessly brutal and brilliantly complex revenge flick

In its first 30 minutes alone, The Nightingale contains not one, but three instances of rape, an act of infanticide, and a cold-blooded murder. If such a graceful title seems ill-suited to a film this brutal and uncompromising, that’s sort of the point – the film’s protagonist, a young Irish woman confined to a penal colony in 19th century Tasmania, is out of place, too. Writer-director Jennifer Kent, who stunned with the 2014 horror yarn The Babadook, has approached this story – and her characters – without mercy. But what begins as a seemingly traditional take on the well-worn rape-revenge fantasy genre slowly begins to reveal itself as something far more complex and interesting.

“The Nightingale” is Clare Carroll (Aisling Franciosi), a former convict whose beautiful voice has earned her the nickname of the title. Married to an Irishman, she lives in servitude to Hawkins (Sam Claflin), a British lieutenant both dissatisfied and entitled – a lethal combination in the barren colonies of Van Diemen’s Land, the name by which Tasmania was known in 1825. When Hawkins is passed over for a promotion, he takes out his anger on Clare and her family in a desperately difficult-to-watch, gut-wrenching sequence that ends with Clare knocked unconscious and left for dead. When she wakes up nothing remains but a burning desire for revenge, and so she hires an aboriginal guide, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), to help track down Hawkins and his men, who are heading North on Hawkins’ orders.

This set-up is not unlike Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, in that somebody thought dead returns to wreak vengeance, ghost-like, on those who harmed their family, though I’d argue that nothing in that movie comes anywhere close to the stomach-churning barbarity of The Nightingale. And whilst Iñárritu’s film felt closer to an exercise in style and a showcase for its lead star, The Nightingale – though stylish in its own way with its boxy aspect ratio, not to mention packed with committed performances, especially from Franciosi – feels more thematically dense and a whole lot angrier. Kent has set her sights on the cruelness of the white male oppressors that have taken everything not only from Claire, but also from Billy, made a stranger to his own land.

The Nightingale is a punishing film in terms of its content, but also in its length. It’s an exhausting watch at 136 minutes, and at times it feels like the madness is too much to bear – though this is admittedly by design. As Clare heads deeper into the wilderness, Kent stacks one bloody set-piece upon another, depicting a world that is only ever cruel, despicable, and indifferent to its characters’ suffering. In the process, The Nightingale flirts with western and revenge genre conventions, but the film – refusing a straight-forward narrative thrust – constantly subverts itself: there is no sense of wrongs being righted here in the way you’d expect from a film with this plot, and any notion of justice being served feels complicated, not cathartic.

Ironically, the moments that most evoke the stylings of The Babadook are the film’s least successful: surreal nightmare sequences undermine the brutal realism that makes up the rest of The Nightingale, though these are deployed fleetingly enough that they don’t quite break the film’s savage spell. Thematically, however, Kent is suggesting that for a woman in this period the brutality will never cease – even as she sleeps. In refusing to tone down the violence, or deliver Clare’s story as a more conventional 90 minute thriller, the director also refuses to let us, the audience, off the hook. Like Clare, we are left with no option but to trudge onwards.

Yet in the forging of an unlikely connection between two people who are more alike than they first seem – a gentle holding of hands at night; a sharing of traditional songs over a campfire – there is solace. Later, Clare will exhale as though for the first time, and so, too, will we, not realising we might have been holding our breath since it all began. The Nightingale is a bold and punishing work that forces you to confront and grapple with its depictions of historical injustice; braver and more mature than The Babadook, its horrors more horrifying because they stem from such a dark and shameful truth.

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