The Nightingale

Australia (2018) Dir. Jennifer Kent

People are different be it through race, colour, creed, religion, geography, politics, or gender yet in many ways we are also the same – cut us and we all bleed, hurt us we all cry. So what is about our differences that even under extreme circumstances we can’t put them aside for the greater good? Is empathy overrated?  

In 1825 in Van Diemen’s land (now Tasmania), Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) has been enslaved by British Army Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) for his own pleasure despite her being a mother to a baby son and wife to Aiden (Michael Sheasby). When Clare asks Hawkins for letters of recommendation for her family’s freedom he promised, Hawkins angrily rapes her.

Following a fight with Hawkins, Aiden and Clare decides to escape but Hawkins and two soldiers Ruse (Damon Herriman) and Jago (Harry Greenwood) intercept them. They kill Aiden and the baby and gang rape Clare before heading off on a mission Hawkins hopes will earn him a promotion. Fuelled by revenge, Clare enlists the aid of Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to guide her through the forests and track Hawkins down.

Jennifer Kent caught everybody’s attention with her horror film debut The Babadook and despite being flooded with scripts from Hollywood, chose to focus on her own work for her follow up instead. The Nightingale isn’t a horror film but is horrific, arguably more so than The Babadook due to the graphic depictions of its disturbing content set in the real world and not a supernatural one.

Reports of people walking out of screenings 10 minutes into it attest to how difficult a film it is to watch – the first thirty minutes contain three rapes and infanticide, and that is before the onslaught of rampant racism, another rape, and extreme violence. Debate will rage if Kent is actually saying something with this or simply out to shock, and even if one cannot decide which side of the argument they sit, it can be agreed this is superbly made and provocative film.

Before we go any further, I must digress for a moment once again to lament the lack of HOH subtitles on the DVD release preventing me from enjoying the film more than I wanted to. The bulk of the dialogue is in English, the delivery is typically theatrical and poorly recorded, and the Irish and Aborigine accents also hamper the clarity, so if I have missed something, you know why.

Okay, rant over back to the film. In defending the violence, Kent has said this is a story bemoaning the lack of kindness and humanity during a war scenario, and it is certainly a pertinent facet of the central relationship between Clare and Billy. More than this, the tone feels more about addressing the caste system created by British martial law which saw all white people belittle and marginalise the Aboriginals, which Clare is very much party to.

Using the derogatory term “boy” she orders Billy about and shows a level of contempt towards him she knew herself from Hawkins and the other stuff under his employ. It may not be conscious or deliberate but having viewed Clare as sympathetic for the first thirty minutes, she is now quite the opposite. We know racism was much worse in the 19th century so in keeping with the empathy theme, it is disarming to see a pecking order of value established as inherent – White British > Irish > Aboriginals.

Conversely, to the Aboriginals all white people are demonised thanks to the actions of the British Army and there is not even a hint of balance to offer a counter opinion – a young lad accompanying Hawkins and his group is even cajoled into holding a gun to Billy and cursing him as filth. It seems only Clare is afforded the mantle of having her prejudice against indigenous people challenged and re-evaluated.

For the purpose of this tale, Hawkins is unrelenting evil, not limited to sparing his men from his fiery temper either, viewing anyone and anything as either a stepping stone or an obstacle. Ruse is similarly dyspeptic but only to impress Hawkins, often paying for his over eagerness. Jago is the closest to having a conscience, evidently frightened enough of his superiors as a lowly private to take a stand but still unworthy of clemency.

The change in Clare from demure maid with an angelic singing voice to Charles Bronson in a dress is not immediately credible, but the script is smart enough to expose the rash decision to enter the forests wasn’t a smart one. She goes from hot head to simpering damsel as the learning curve becomes steeper, but as her resolve eventually grows, so does her respect for Billy.

Aisling Franciosi delivers a star making performance despite these cavils, and we believe she lived every step of Clare’s ordeal, the emotional, mental, and physical toll etched in bruise on her face and fading glint in her eyes. In his first role, Baykali Ganambarr proves a natural actor, but it will be interesting if he gets roles in the future that are not just “the Aboriginal guy”. Sam Claflin is also convincingly nasty as Hawkins.

Everything about the film, the performances, cinematography (presented in 4:3 picture ratio), and fully immersive quality of the period aesthetic cannot be faulted (although this is the most profane period film I’ve ever seen), the talking point will be its harrowing unpleasantness. The artistry is rewarding enough to deem this a great piece of cinema but did we need to sit through the opening visceral horrors to get this reward?

Jennifer Kent has everyone talking again with The Nightingale and rightly so, but is it for the right reasons? She is clearly a gifted and bold filmmaker with a unique vision, the question is has she gone too far too soon or is she looking to be a female provocateur in cinema? Should we be worried or excited?

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