Film Review: The Nightingale (dir. Jennifer Kent)
Horror and shock value go hand in hand for obvious reasons. For as long as movies have existed at all, the ability to startle an audience with a well-placed fright or shocking visual has been something of an ace in the hole. Whether it’s the physical jolts of William Castle and Vincent Price or the stories of fainting and vomiting at The Exorcist, the ability to make us jump and scream or squirm or make us retchedly upset can be the difference between being remembered for decades to come or being forgotten by next week’s box office results.
But The Nightingale is not itself horror. Not in the traditional sense, anyway, like director Jennifer Kent’s first film, the her itchy gothic storybook horror The Babadook. Although it is horrific, which makes for a distinct difference. Nevertheless, tails of this film’s graphic violence including three traumatic rape scenes have lent it its own mythical quality in the lead-up to its local release. Particularly out of its screenings at the Sydney Film Festival where audience members walked out and lo and behold we’re back to having conversations about the role filmmakers and artists play in telling our stories.
Clare (Ainsling Franciosi for whom this is my introduction; I have not seen Game of Thrones or The Fall) is a young Irish woman, a convict in Tasmania (née Van Diemen’s Land) who is put to work with the soldiers of a British outpost. Her angelic voice and beauty bring her to the attention of the all the men, but in particular Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). When he commits an act of heinous criminality against her, he forges on to Launceston (pronounced as it was at the time, I suppose, as Launston) to take on his new post. Clare uses her meagre savings to get an Aboriginal man, Billy (the magnetic Baykali Ganambarr), to track them with her so she can hunt them down and kill them.
Just from that description alone, it’s easy to see that there is a lot in play here. And viewing it in the contemporary rather than even 20 years ago makes the experience something uniquely potent. Australia is, after all, a country that has long fought with its history as a nation with racism running right down the middle. Some sort of residual hurt feelings over being a country founded by criminals I suspect. Lord knows it isn’t residual guilt from being descendants of colonising genocidists, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves there.
Filmmakers have long tried to navigate this history, often to mixed effect. No doubt affected by the very basic mechanics of the Australian film scene; we are a nation of small enough population that very localised stories rarely travel far beyond our own screens and make little money when they do coupled with an eager press dominated by conservative upper-classmen who are only too eager and willing to attack anybody for daring to critique Australian society (historical or otherwise) while also taking money from the country’s “coffers” to do so (a significant number of Australian film productions receive some sort of government funding). I mean, look, on screens at the same time as Kent’s film are two separate documentaries about the Adam Goodes AFL racism saga (The Final Quarter streaming on TenPlay, and The Australian Dream currently in cinemas) and that was only this decade.
"Australia is, after all, a country that has long fought with its history as a nation with racism running right down the middle."
The violence that is so prevalent in The Nightingale is essential. In that regard, Kent wisely gave herself a bit more room to the breathe since Tasmania was famously the most hellish of the British Empire’s penal outposts. It’s true that many will find it unsettling and hard to watch. That’s probably at least part of the point, but Kent and her Polish cinematographer Radek Ladczuk (returning once more after The Babadook) frame it often in such a way that the sensationalism that one may expect from another film is absent. The rape scenes in particular show the difference between a female director and many male ones (even those who are sympathetic to ghastly ways that women have been portrayed for too long now in these contexts).
But the blood and the trauma is just one part of The Nightingale. It is an amazingly rendered work of cinema, with its attentive sound design that almost weaves the details of the Tasmanian wilderness within Jed Kurzel’s score for authenticity. Plus at over two hours, editor Simon Njoo keeps things remarkably brisk. Kent’s screenplay is probably what makes this film work most of all – at least beyond the intensity that Franciosi and Ganambarr bring to it – that is able to traverse the difficult narrative with a delicate ease. It balances well the conflicting dynamics at play with a white Irish woman, herself the recipient of life’s hardships against her gender, with her racism in the face of a full-blooded Indigenous man who is even lower on the social ladder. It’s never forgotten that Clare is just as guilty of her treatment of Billy as the soldiers were or that his position in society will remain depressingly stalled for 150 years (and beyond) when Indigenous people were finally counted among the population.
It is a powerful film, but one that ultimately is not as impossibly gruelling as one may expect. And when it is at its most stark, it is nevertheless imbued with a genuine sense of urgency within its story and the themes that remain relevant nearly 200 years later.