Sundance London 2019: The Nightingale Review
While The Babadook put director Jennifer Kent on the map, The Nightingale confirms her to be a director of formidable talent. On the surface it appears to be a complete departure from the horror delights offered by her 2014 film, but stripped down to the bone her new feature is another genre piece at heart. However, it’s layered with such complicated politics - not all of which are succinctly portrayed - that anyone would have a hard time successfully separating the two.
In many ways it works as a companion piece to last year’s hard hitting Australian western, Sweet Country. The story of a young Irish woman looking to avenge the brutal murder of her family is tangibly connected to the savage treatment of the country's indigenous people by white British rulers. Kent doesn’t completely abandon her use of horror, delivering more than enough gory, blood-filled moments and possibly one of the most stomach-churning scenes of violence seen in quite some time. The Nightingale is not for the faint of heart.
Kent's drama/thriller is set in the Tasmanian wilderness of 1825. The camera is frequently trained to face the stark night sky, barren trees and sparse landscape, depicting a harsh vision of hell its inhabitants can never escape. A female convict, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), takes centre stage of the story when she comes into conflict with Lt. Hawkins (Sam Claflin) the man in charge of a small band of British soldiers ruling the local land. Clare is mother to a young infant and wife to another also recently released convict, Aidan (Michael Sheasby).
The opening act is defined by unforgiving scenes of sexual violence and brutality that sees Clare turn from an angelic “songbird” (hence the title) into a ball of anguished, furious rage, ready to track down and seek revenge on Hawkins and his men who have recently departed the area to head up north. Her husband and baby are no longer by her side and she is forced to use a local tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), but his understandable mistrust of white people, and Clare’s own racist misgivings make the start of their journey a partnership of convenience.
Anyone expecting Green Book-esque, white saviour tropes to come to the fore will be able to breathe a sigh of relief. However, whether Kent does so intentionally or not, it seems as if the violence - both sexual and otherwise - shown towards white women by the soldiers is equated to the way in which the indigenous people are treated by every white person they encounter. One hopes it is just clumsy filmmaking, although worryingly, there is a moment when Clare pleads for Billy to continue helping her by saying the white man has taken something from her as they did him, literally conflating the two. Despite the savagery Clare has been subjected to, she still enjoys the privileges her skin colour offers (as shown in a later scene) and the separation between the two is not clearly defined enough by Kent, which is hard to overlook.
There are also issues with the backend of the film which struggles to find a way to close out Clare and Billy’s story. For the first two thirds the pacing is well judged and the trimming of 15 minutes would’ve no doubt have created a more concise narrative. Maybe that would’ve hurt the poetic ending Kent was looking for, but it also could’ve produced a more powerful conclusion to their journey.
Australia (as much as England) continues to struggle with a colonial past that devastated indigenous communities. A recent historical study identified as many as 500 ‘massacre’ sites, where thousands of men, women and children were butchered and robbed of their land. Kent’s film forcibly addresses the country’s dark past and allows no place to hide for the audience. Such is the brute force employed by Hawkins and others Claire and Billy pass on their trail, at times it feels a little too much. But of course, that is the entire point. If modern audiences struggle to sit through this kind of cruelty on a cinema screen, what of those who suffered at the hands of their barbaric oppressors?
Cast wise, the two leads create a strong and believable bond thanks to some fine performances. You would expect this to be a star making turn for Franciosi, who aside from a handful of roles is a relative newcomer, but you’d be hard pressed to spot her inexperience given the gamut of emotions she portrays so convincingly. This is also the first time the charismatic ex-dancer Ganambarr has acted, and while noticeable at times, he creates a richly emotional story that speaks to the devastation felt by Billy's ancestors. It is also worth mentioning Claflin, who will hopefully develop into a fine actor once he stops chewing on the scenery.
What Kent is aiming for with The Nightingale is hard to consume, let alone digest, in one viewing. It's unapologetic in the way she confronts the troubled past of her own country, although the equating of the abuse of white women to the near-massacre of entire race of people has continued to trouble this writer some days after viewing. But it would be rash to write the film off on that basis given what Kent is trying to achieve. It's a film that needs - and deserves - time for reflection. If only it were the case that the powers that be today could offer the same for the atrocities committed by their governmental forefathers.
The Nightingale will play at Sundance London this weekend - visit the website to see if there are any tickets left.