The Nightingale Review
R: Strong violent and disturbing content including rape, language throughout, and brief sexuality
Studio: IFC Films, Causeway Films, Bron Studios
Run Time: 2 Hrs and 16 Minutes
Writer/Director: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie, Charlie Shotwell, Michael Sheasby
Release Date: August 2, 2019
The Nightingale is a meditation on the consequences of violence and the price of seeking vengeance. Set during the colonization of Australia in 1825, the film follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a 21-year-old Irish convict. Having served her 7-year sentence, she is desperate to be free of her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) who refuses to release her from his charge. Clare's husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) retaliates and she becomes the victim of a harrowing crime at the hands of the lieutenant and his cronies. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare decides to pursue Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unable to find compatriots for her journey, she is forced to enlist the help of a young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who grudgingly takes her through the rugged wilderness to track down Hawkins. The terrain and the prevailing hostilities are frightening, as fighting between the original inhabitants of the land and its colonizers plays out in what is now known as "The Black War." Clare and Billy are hostile towards each other from the outset, both suffering their own traumas and mutual distrust, but as their journey leads them deeper into the wilderness, they must learn to find empathy for one another, while weighing the true cost of revenge.
Austrailian director Jennifer Kent has returned with her sophomore feature. It’s a feature so vengeful, so cruel, it’s highly recommended that you go in with an empty stomach. If you thought her debut The Babadook was a terrifying film, The Nightingale finds Jennifer Kent pushing her boundaries to the next level in this unsettling revenge thriller that is as unflinching as it is uncomfortably disturbing. There’s so much to admire on a technical scale and from a filmmaker’s standpoint, but narratively speaking, it is way too excessive to even deem a solid recommendation.
Set during the colonial period, the time when the British began claiming every piece of land they could from any alien outsider they came across — in this case, in the midst of “The Black War” — the story follows an Irish convict named Clare who has served more than just her sentence under the hands of her master, Lieutenant Hawkins. When her husband attempts to seek affirmative action after realizing that his wife has been sexually abused against her will, he and his infant are killed right in front of Clare by Hawkins and his crew. With everything taken from her, a furious Clare sets out on a journey of vengeance. Along the way she enlists — well, enforces — an aboriginal tracker named Billy, who has his own unbridled rage he’s dealing with, to lead her to the British soldiers and take them down.
Horror comes in many forms. Personally, frightening images have little to no effect on me. What does define horror to me is imagery emphasized by realism. Films such as 12 Years a Slave and Detroit are prime examples of what horror movies mean to me. The Nightingale is a new entry that succeeds in horror that has you uneasy from the first few minutes all the way towards the end of the movie, primarily because of the triggering content used as a plot device. To put it bluntly, there are sequences of rape in the movie. Not one, not even two, but FIVE sequences of rape and they are unbearably unbearably prolonged.
A major positive aspect which The Nightingale prospers from lies within the production design department. There hasn’t been a notable film that takes place in the colonial period, let alone one that doesn’t take place in America, and Kent passionately shows how in depth she went with her research on this moment in Australian history that many don’t know about. For the given era the narrative takes place in, Kent never romanticizes the period through her cinematography or designs of the characters, who all look like trash. And that’s not in a subjective sense because this took place long before hygiene existed. Men during the colonial period looked horrific, even more so than their actions, and that’s made exceptionally clear. From the get go, you note how dominant British soldiers look like shit with their crooked teeth, spouting spit with their lines of dialogue, and constantly sweating through it all. As you follow Clare (portrayed by an amazing Aisling Franciosi, who exhibits true human shock and unbridled rage) you see the terrors that the British have done to the indigenous people of the land and Kent doesn’t hold back one bit.
If there was a standout performance that rocked me it was Sam Claflin. I suspect that Sam is a real stand-up guy, but for now he can go fuck himself. Congratulations, you took the mantle of “male actor I can’t stand anymore” away from Will Poulter and his horrifying performance in Detroit. You’re the new Brit I hate now, which is a testament to how great his performance is as this piece of scum lieutenant hyper fixated on masculinity in a primitive sense to reflect the time period. Some of the men — including his superiors — have a few morals, but this scumbag of a soldier doesn’t have a single one. Projecting nothing but vile entitlement over everything he comes across, whether it be women or Black bodies, he couldn’t care less and most of the despicable actions stem from his orders. Not to overemphasize, but if he ever comes my way I will most likely say, “Fuck you” just because of how convincingly real his performance is.
That being said, I honestly didn’t care much for this movie at all. I can take shock value like a champ. You can hit me with your best shocking content as long as it’s able to serve a compelling story — a story that is moving and meaningful. The Nightingale throws so much abhorrent shock value your way that it becomes numbing, and for what? To serve a simplistic revenge story? I understand the unconventional originality of the narrative as it doesn’t deliver the satisfying cathartic release for the rage you feel, for it’s so settled in reality.
Kent expresses the unspeakable horrors women face and the brutal pain of the act through her shot composition and her actors’ performances. At first you might consider her direction bold, but that boldness morphs into repugnance due to the excessive graphic depictions of rape and violence. The more sequences of rape that occur (not just with Clare, but also indigenous Black women with their young present and leaving the camera set on the woman’s pain-stricken face during this egregious act), the more muddled the message it tries to convey becomes as it numbs the emotional shock you feel. Besides establishing the brutality and dominance of man, which we as a society are already aware of, these sequences are utilized as a plot device to kick off the story. But by the time the fourth — yes, FOURTH — graphic sequence of rape occurs you’re going:
Underneath the trivial narrative and uneasy violence lies themes of toxic masculinity and femininity that are so one note that by the time you get to the climax, it’s underwhelming.
For God’s sake, at least buy me dinner before you smack me in the face with shocking and triggering sequences. I’ll give Kent this: I didn’t know anything about The Black War and I respect her in-depth and raw depiction of it. That said, it’s nothing groundbreaking. We’ve seen the graphic imagery of Black men being enslaved, massacred, raped, and of course being treated kindly by one White person to convey that, “Hey! Not all White people are terrible!”
That is not to discredit Baykali Ganambarr (who portrays Billy) and his dynamic with Franciosi, for both characters are so fueled with rage towards the British that it blinds them from treating each other with any form of kindness. As someone who is tired of race relation movies, this is more of a nationality relations concept. And even then, it treads on so much familiar ground that it’s not even worth complimenting.
“As The Nightingale trudges on, it becomes harder and harder to continue justifying such content – with any cognizance beyond ‘white men in authority are evil’ becoming duly lost in the mud. What is it with deplorable, racist white men and cinema’s undying wish to humanize them? Kent spends so much time musing over hierarchies of authority, all the while overlooking her own jurisdiction on telling this story of racialized, colonial violence, is an irony that I was too worn-down by to find any joy in.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.