Jennifer Kent (director)
29 November 2019 (released)
26 November 2019
For her follow up to the highly praised The Babadook Jennifer Kent has taken one of the most controversial staples from the horror (or any) genre: rape and revenge and crafted a completely different film that seeks to explore the racial and gender issues in Australia under the British colonial rule of the 1900’s.
Set in 1825 Van Diemen’s Land, in a penal settlement governed over by the British army, Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict who having been transported there has done her seven years of indentured servitude and is expecting to be released. That’s the law but the ambitious Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) has taken a fancy to her both abusively and because of her beautiful singing voice and refuses to let her go.
The decision infuriates Aidan (Michael Sheasby), Clare’s husband who confronts Hawkins. Hawkins, and his men, carry out a horrendous act of violence that leaves Clare with no option but to pursue Hawkins – who is now making his way north on the guarantee of a promotion to Captain - after the law fails her.
The journey is long and dangerous through bleak, rugged wilderness with which she is totally unfamiliar. With no option she enlists aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to take her through it. It’s an uncomfortable situation with mutual mistrust dogging them however they track their way towards Hawkins and his men, and confrontation.
The Nightingale is a complex story that in which our sympathies towards certain characters are never up for question but there are nuances at play. Clare is as much a racist as the British in her initial attitude towards Billy, who in turn just sees here as another British oppressor. With time these prejudices are tempered and in a careful unforced way they begin to understand each other and their suffering.
Hawkins is a vile character with a capacity for extreme physical violence and psychological manipulation of his victims and his men. He has virtually no redeeming qualities but it is the nature of these films that the pursuers will question if they are doing the right thing in exacting revenge.
Much is left to the viewer on this as while Kent does guide in a particular direction, it’s by no means clear cut. On a base level are Clare and Billy themselves dehumanising as they confront the men, turning into those they pursue or can they point to a moral justification that will satisfy their conscience?
On a technical level The Nightingale is unflinching in every area, the harsh landscapes, the depravity of people and their lives, and in its depiction of rape and violence. Kent’s close-ups and tight direction not letting the viewer off for a second. The cast are uniformly excellent and it would be invidious to pick anyone out for special praise. One quibble is that it is probably too long and as they chase through the forest it loses some of its intensity in the latter stages.