THE NIGHTINGALE Sings a Brutal Song

Jennifer Kent’s revisionist revenge saga is a journey that’s not for the faint of heart–or stomach

Courtesy of IFC Films.

There is an elemental satisfaction gained from revenge stories. They uphold our sense of how the world should work — that if anything terrible happens, we are owed justice, and we will inevitably mete it out with methodical precision. But the best of these stories acknowledge that revenge is far from the cut-and-dried goal that tempts us in the wake of tragedy, and recent years have seen newer twists placed on these bloody tales. Kill Bill navigates a winding path of characters who share myriad opposing viewpoints on the Bride’s roaring rampage of revenge. Oldboy’s tragic ouroboros of vengeance sees the justice-seeker become the one sought out. The Proposition delivers “justice” to the angry mob demanding it — and forces them to bear witness to the repugnant fruits of their labor. It’s not a new idea to suggest that revenge is a cyclical pursuit, but it’s always refreshing to find films that have their eyes trained beyond their anticipated final confrontations. That revenge isn’t a singular choice that exists in a vacuum, but is one on an endless path of morally-compromising decisions, each one inevitably motivating the other. To borrow a line from Kill Bill, “Revenge isn’t a straight line. It’s a forest.”

And amidst the forests of 1825 Tasmania, we find The Nightingale’s Clare (Aisling Franciosi). Clare’s an Irish convict at the end of a seven-year prison sentence, but the lecherous and possessive Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) refuses to end Clare’s assault-plagued servitude so she can flee with her husband and baby. After a conflict between Clare’s family and Lieutenant Hawkins ends in tragedy, Clare pursues Hawkins and his men across the island craving vengeance. Unable to navigate the wilderness on her own, Clare begrudgingly hires Aboriginal teenager Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) as an equally reluctant guide.

The Nightingale is a film whose gaze isn’t fixed on the aftermath of revenge, but instead perpetually on the past, with its characters’ acts of brutality contextualized by the atrocities throughout Australia’s colonial history. Before we even get to know Clare and Billy, we know their status. Clare is Irish, and was shipped to Tasmania to serve a sentence for petty crimes; she speaks English around people in power, and Gaelic with her family. She’s long-since served out her sentence, but her status as a female Irish convict gives her little avenue for aid — and all too much opportunity for Hawkins and his men to take advantage of and assault her. Billy hails from northern Tasmania, separated from his Letteremairrener clan as a child and raised in the “civilized” fashion of the time; those who resisted, among many Aboriginal clans, were slaughtered as progress marched on. His resistance is given voice in the form of Palawa Kani, (a near-dead, recently-resurrected Aboriginal Tasmanian language), and helping Clare dovetails into his burning desire to return to his clan’s homeland. Long before The Nightingale reaches the spark of bloodshed that ignites the rest of the plot, Kent makes her audience aware that her characters already exist in a society of unending injustice and cruelty.

Alongside Hawkins and his men, it’s this world of classism and racism that becomes an equally formidable antagonist for Billy and Clare’s journey. Despite their mutual oppression by those in power, Clare is bitingly racist towards Billy — a quality Kent doesn’t shy away from in order to make Clare more relatable or redeemable. In a welcome turn, Billy is just as venomous towards Clare, calling her out on her bigotry and stubbornness as it often almost gets them killed. As much as they hate each other, though, Clare and Billy need each other to survive — wandering the jungles alone puts each of them at risk if discovered by the wrong party.

As the film goes on, Clare and Billy’s dueling enmity and necessity find common ground, especially in their mutual hatred of the English. Thankfully, Kent spares The Nightingale from going down the path of films like Green Book or Driving Miss Daisy by never quite absolving or wholly converting her characters from their antiquated worldview. Instead, Billy and Clare subvert the roles they occupy in Australian society by playing into them when necessary, not just so they’ll ensure their mutual survival, but out of a growing platonic love and protection towards one another. It’s in this relationship that The Nightingale finds most of its scarce hope, and is counted among the film’s greatest strengths.

Clare and Billy’s performances in The Nightingale are also first-rate. Much of the film’s claustrophobic Academy-ratio shots are focused on Aisling Franciosi’s Clare, whose expression walks a riveting fraying tightrope of terror and resolve. While Clare may occasionally succumb to terrors both outside and internal, Franciosi ensures that Clare’s spirit is never seen as broken. Newcomer Baykali Ganambarr, a traditional stage dancer in his first film role, gives a performance that’s rough around the edges yet fueled with a defiant confidence — giving the impression of a young man full of potential yet tragically born in the wrong century. The Hunger Games’ Sam Claflin is also chilling as Hawkins, shifting from dutiful people-pleaser to brutal murderer with uncomfortable ease. All three performances arrest the audience’s attention, and like Jennifer Kent’s previous film The Babadook, The Nightingale refuses to leave sight of its characters. As a result, much of Kent’s attention is set on the protagonists’ exhausted reactions to the horrors her world has to offer them. It’s this focus on reactions that partially makes The Nightingale such a difficult watch, as its audience is rendered unable to spare those onscreen from the brutality inflicted upon them.

And unlike other revenge films, there’s nothing gratifying about The Nightingale’s violent acts. It’s a film far removed from the subdued chills of The Babadook; here, the writer/director turns her attention from metaphorical demons to all-too-real ones, in a period of Australian history where men and monsters were one and the same. There is a brimming rage throughout, replacing the horror of Kent’s past feature with a frank, almost deadening approach to violence. Captured Aboriginal People are subjected to normalized lynchings and sexual slavery; Lieutenant Hawkins’ convicts are subjected to just-as-ritualized assault and cruelty. These horrors are also contextually bound to Kent’s in-depth historical research — and equally committed to the idea that sensationalizing this violence would divorce it from the uncomfortable reality it depicts. As such, The Nightingale is a restrained yet incredibly violent film, the full nature of which I have been asked to leave unspoiled. The true horror of The Nightingale lies in what man justifies in doing to those he sees as below him — and the power structures that leave women and minorities in a prison of victimhood. It’s an approach that makes The Nightingale feel unnaturally current — and as such requires a mature level-headedness in response from its audience.

Clare and Billy inevitably reckon with the trauma that set them on their path — and the potential violence required of them once they reach their destination. Unfortunately, it’s here where The Nightingale hits its false notes, as the balance Kent keeps between Clare and Billy’s tandem revenge quests grows increasingly uneven. There are moments where the weight of one characters’ actions threatens to diminish the importance of the other, especially as Clare struggles with following through on her desire for retribution. For a film that focuses on the agency deprived from its characters, it’s frustrating when Kent occasionally rids Clare of her narrative drive in climactic moments — and is even more frustrating when Kent lends that power to Billy at Clare’s expense, or vice versa. It’s a subversion of our expectations, sure, but one that feels uncomfortably at odds with the characters that have been established, and threatens to dull the emotional blow of the film during its drawn-out closing act. That said, Kent is careful to remind us of the common enemy at the heart of Clare and Billy’s struggle — the systems that allows these atrocities to take place. What’s also clear is that their stories are only two amidst a horrifying, archaic system of government-sanctioned violence that present-day Australians still reckon with.

In The Nightingale, there is at once a sincere love of Australia and a shameful mourning for those who fell victim to its period of colonization. Moreover, it feels like a wholly current film as those in positions of power — both in Australia and abroad — finally find themselves threatened after decades of unquestioned rule. Given that the situations of The Nightingale find themselves playing out even today, it’s easy to understand that the film itself offers up no simple answers to violence. There are two diverging paths taken by the leads at the end of their journey, hopefully arriving at the same nebulous place of peace. It’s an admirable, sincere idea, one beautifully represented by Kent in the film’s closing moments. It’s also one that maturely urges the audience to draw their own conclusions after the film, and encourages them to continue the much-needed conversation on race and inequality it starts.

While its protracted conclusion may disappoint as much as it satisfies, The Nightingale’s dedication towards historical reckoning is brutally effective, as is Kent’s refreshing subversion of revenge tropes. The Nightingale is a film that deserves to be seen–even if it’s understandably only seen once.

The Nightingale opens in Austin, Texas on August 9th.

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