Following up The Babadook, one of the most acclaimed horror movies of the decade, Australian director Jennifer Kent has eschewed expectations as a genre director and delivered a new film, The Nightingale, which ups the production value, ambition and political parlay of her debut. Set in 1825 Van Diemen’s Land, once a major convict colony and now Tasmania (the charming island where trendy foodies visit for their holidays), a young convict, Clare, lives a life of relative stability with her loving husband and baby. A British officer, Hawkins (Sam Claflin), torments her, but she hopes that by singing for the soldiers, “The Nightingale” will be permitted freedom. In a rage at being passed over for promotion after a Lieutenant inspects the barracks and sees the soldiers’ slovenly, drunken state, Hawkins brutally rapes Clare and murders her family. The next day she proclaims herself dead, hires Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr, terrific) and sets out in pursuit of Hawkins, who has taken a small squad up north to demand that promotion from his superiors. Aisling Franciosi is put through the ringer as Clare in a performance of incredible endurance.
The sexual violence in The Nightingale may rightly be its biggest turn off, depicted with a rigid, subjective eye that is harrowing in its repetition. Kent looks at the Officers’ approach to the act as flippant and almost mundane, as she injects scene after scene with appalling graphic violence. To some, this will be unnecessary, and it’s certainly unclear whether the sheer number of extended rape scenes, particularly those inflicted on a nameless Aboriginal woman, advance the plot or character. But in terms of bludgeoning the audience with the sins of the past, one feels as though it is a necessary punishment as a viewer in order to reckon with the historical reality of sexual violence in the British Empire. Linking gendered violence against an Irish prisoner and the repeated humiliation and murder of Aboriginal people may be a slightly crude device, but in a nation with an ongoing history war (historians like Keith Windschuttle use male Aboriginal practices as a defence for Colonial violence, for example), this remains a story worth telling.
The equivalence between a white Irish Woman and an Aboriginal man is equally questionable — a woman dragged from her home and a man whose home has been dragged from him. There are still knotts and differing levels of sympathy within this. At the beginning of The Nightingale, Clare won’t step near Billy, training her rifle on him as he leads her through the bush. She treats the man — who she promises two shillings to — as property. One of the greatest justifications for The Nightingale’s 137 minute length is the slow reaching of an understanding between the pair, who — despite their individual suffering — have been largely blind to the extent of the colonial machine.
In a scene which emphasizes the grammar of the white saviour trope without any of the sentimentality or supposed catharsis, Clare and Billy take shelter at a farmer’s house. Billy, who eats on the floor, is forced by the farmer to sit at the table for dinner — as though Billy is being done a favour, made equal. Here, even a display of generosity is an assertion of white supremacy. Billy sings in his Tasmanian dialect, and — by the end — Clare sings in Irish, her language recovered. Even in the bleak descent to hell, she has at least come across something of who she once was, or who she thought she might be.
Like Blood Meridian, that epic of colonialist bloodshed along the frontier, The Nightingale depicts a brutal historicism; a cruel world that favours no one but those who already have it. This isn’t a wish-fulfillment revenge film, but a reality check. The rapist soldiers themselves act out of anger and checks to their assumed power. Sam Claflin’s repugnant Hawkins, a northerner, struggles to rise the ranks and lashes out every time he’s reminded of his impotence. Imagine the racism of The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards without the ironic glow. John Ford’s film pointedly comes up a few times in The Nightingale, with a well executed, inverted reference to that classic final shot, and an academy ratio that brings out the simple flow of information in the director’s images.
There may be superficial similarities to The Revenant, a film that was ultimately hollow in its approach to violence and revenge, awkwardly trying to compare the vastness of nature with man’s propensity for cruelty. A fonder comparison might be Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent (2015), episodic and harshly critical of a filmmaker’s own national historical past. Kent uses dream sequences and the grammar of horror to draw viewers inside Clare’s head, but keeps a rigorous distance at times to contrast subjective and historical viewpoints. This leads to some white knuckle sequences, especially as the various groups begin to intersect and bump up against each other. This may be primarily an exploration of evil, but Kent finds time to make a satisfying genre piece too.
As The Nightingale underlines the cruelty of Australian colonialism, abounded by suspicion and petty recriminations, one doesn’t have to work hard to see how the land turns into the same one occupied by the sadistic inhabitants of The Yabba in Ted Kotcheff’s psychedelic Wake in Fright (1971). It’s hardly subtle, in fact this is an almost straightforward, hard boiled rape-revenge film. But there’s a detour in the last half hour that upends the genre and forces the viewer to confront the reality of what revenge is when it becomes more than an abstract impulse — its significance, its finality, its futility. The Nightingale is a rich and vivid work from a director who’s bold vision accounts for its brutality.
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.