The Nightingale Review
Van Diemen’s Land, now known as Tasmania, the 1820s. Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict married to Aidan (Michael Sheasby), with whom she has a baby daughter. She is in the service of Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) from the colonising British troops, Clare is nearing the end of her sentence, but when Hawkins refuses to release Clare from it, an altercation results in Aidan and their daughter being killed and Clare raped and left for dead. Hawkins has departed for Launceston, in the north of the island, and Clare swears revenge, following them with the aid of Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr).
Writer/director Jennifer Kent’s first feature The Babadook (2014) was a horror film whose supernatural elements were rooted in its protagonist’s trauma and the depression resulting from it. The Nightingale takes a slightly different tack: a historical story with elements of the Western and borders on the type of horror that is the rape/revenge drama. If The Babadook was unflinching as it describe its protagonist’s (played by Essie Davis) descent into madness from trauma, The Nightingale is too. It earns its 18 certificate with its depictions of sexual violence (more than once) and some scenes of graphic violence, not to mention a lot of what the BBFC refers to as very strong language. If you are likely to find any of that triggering, particularly the first of those, then approach with caution. The Nightingale is undoubtedly a very tough watch but also a highly impressive one.
Aisling Franciosi is best known up to now for television roles, especially in series two and three of The Fall and two episodes of Game of Thrones. She’s due in a forthcoming miniseries of Black Narcissus, as Sister Ruth, the role played by Kathleen Byron in the 1947 film. The Nightingale is only her second cinema film and first lead role. As with The Babadook, Jennifer Kent and her lead actress don’t soften the character at all, and the ferocity with which she plays her role is palpable. The film doesn’t sentimentalise the bond between convict Irishwoman and Aboriginal tracker either, as at first their relationship is definitely one of command and commanded, and while Clare as an Irishwoman has a hatred of the English, to her the “blacks” are just as much othered. However, the film does link them in other ways.
If Clare is called a “nightingale” for her singing voice (with which we see her entertain the troops in the opening scene), Billy is, as he says, “a blackbird”. They are also marginalised due to language. Clare and Aidan speak in Irish Gaelic to each other as much as they do English. Meanwhile, the Aboriginal characters speak in Palawi Kani, a near-extinct Tasmanian Aboriginal language never before spoken in a film. The Aboriginal actors all came from the Australian mainland. Baykali Ganambarr was a dancer who had never acted before. While Hawkins and his crew are undoubtedly portrayed as little more than nasty pieces of work, Sam Claflin ably portrays a man whose perceived lack of power gives him licence to have power over those further down the hierarchy than himself.
The middle section of the film takes place in the forests and wilderness of central Tasmania, all muted greens, greys and blacks in the Academy-ratio camerawork of Radek Ladczuk, who also shot The Babadook. Also returning from Kent’s earlier film are production designer Alex Holmes, who does fine work, as does costume designer Margot Wilson. While the violence – sexual or otherwise – in The Nightingale is unsparingly depicted, it never feels gratuitous or indulged, more like an unflinching look at what may have been the life of people like Clare, and what was involved in the colonisation of a not-yet-federated country in the suppression of its native peoples. It’s not an easy pill to swallow – and the film provoked walkouts at its premiere in Venice in 2018 – but it’s a compelling film all the same.
The Nightingale is released in UK cinemas on 29 November.