Set in 1825, Clare, a young Irish convict woman, chases a British officer through the rugged Tasmanian wilderness, bent on revenge for a terrible act of violence he committed against her family. On the way she enlists the services of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy, who is also marked by trauma from his own violence-filled past.
When Australian auteur Jennifer Kent made a splash at Sundance in 2014 with her debut feature The Babadook, the entire world took notice. 5 years later she returns with a sweeping, brutal epic set in 1825 Tasmania called The Nightingale that is a vastly different and very personal film.
Our story opens on Clare (Aisling Franciosi) who is serving the last days of her sentence doing menial work for the soldiers at a Brittish outpost in Tasmania. Free to roam, she and her husband have an infant daughter and have built a modest hovel, in which to serve out their respective sentences in the penal colony. Waiting only on her papers declaring her freedom, Clare works in subservience to the abusive Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). One evening, after receiving a bit of bad news, Hawkins and his men commit an act of shocking violence against Clare and her family, leaving her with nothing.
“With everything gone and a fiery sense of justice, Clare sets off…to find her attackers and kill them…”
Hawkins and his men flee north and the local superiors are loath to take the Irish female ex-con’s word for what has occurred. With everything gone and a fiery sense of justice, Clare sets off into the Tasmanian terrain to find her attackers and kill them. She has nothing but a few supplies, her husband’s horse, and a small amount of money with which to hire a guide. Initially, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) is reluctant to guide Clare through the wilderness. An Aboriginal who has seen “The Black War” play out around him with the colonizers committing outright genocide on the original inhabitants of the land. However, a mutual hatred for the British and a mutual need for justice guides Clare and Billy to a place of trust in a common goal.
The Nightingale is another triumph for Kent. Not one to aim for more crowd-pleasing material and palatable choices, she directs this visceral and moving revenge picture with a very sure hand. Shot in the Academy ratio (1.375:1), which was used commonly in films worldwide from the 30s to the 50s the look of the picture is more square, less cinematic, keeping the actors front and center against the stunning Tasmanian landscape. The vicious history of what was once called “Hell on Earth” by its inhabitants is brought to life through an unflinching depiction of a time of unbridled cruelty. Despite the intensity, the script does offer moments of levity that give us a chance to breathe and offer us a chance to warm up to the characters of Billy and Clare as they forge ahead on their mission.
From a production standpoint, The Nightingale is utterly perfect. Authentic costume design by Margot Wilson captures the lives of everyone from the military to the peasants to the indigenous people with striking clarity. Production design by Alex Holmes is at once beautiful and repulsive sharing the contrasts of the natural beauty of the wilderness with the fabricated textures of the colonizers.
“…owed it to the victims to accurately portray a time that even native Australians may not be familiar with.”
Claflin’s Hawkins is a vile monster of a man that triggers anxiety in the viewer. While handsome, he is abusive, brutal, and randomly murderous with no regard for the life of any creature, human or otherwise. Ganambarr’s Billy is a sympathetic and wonderfully resourceful foil to Clare. Arguing and taunting his Irish employer, we slowly see his gruff, flippant exterior give way to connection and respect. Nikki Barrett’s casting shines in the choice of Franciosi as Clare. Initially softspoken and demure, we see Clare transform like a phoenix rising from the ashed to exact vengeance when she has nothing left to lose. Franciosi creates electrifying moments of honesty that had this reviewer literally trembling at times and cheering at others.
This is not a film for everyone. Despite being warned of the frank depictions of violence, several audience members walked out of the theater, tapping out at the brutality. In an interview director, Kent said that she owed it to the victims to accurately portray a time that even native Australians may not be familiar with. I could understand that and I was personally prepared for the heavy material. I was rewarded with a truly outstanding film made from a place of dignity and respect for the history of horrific violence that marred that time period. Jennifer Kent continues to be a fiercely original, very brave filmmaker who demands to be respected.
The Nightingale (2019) Written and directed by Jennifer Kent. Starring Sam Claflin, Aisling Franciosi, Damon Herriman, Ewen Leslie, Charlie Shotwell, Baykali Ganambarr, Nathaniel Dean. The Nightingale screened at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
9 out of 10 stars