Director Jennifer Kent has gone in a somewhat unexpected direction as a follow up to her cult hit, The Babadook. Mining the uncomfortable corners of her country’s past, Kent has conjured a work full of relentless brutality, which will definitely prove too much for some, if not most audiences. However, it is an important historical work which tells the damning truth about an era which many people would like to forget and perhaps the relentless brutality is the exact point.
Featuring a bravura central performance from Irish-Italian actress Aisling Franciosi, which is comparable to Florence Pugh’s blistering break-out in Lady Macbeth, The Nightingale shows an unexpected side to Australia, in more ways than one. Firstly, it is set in Tasmania, meaning that the landscapes we most often associate with Australia – barren, dry, hot deserts are not to be found here. Instead we have lush greenery, jungle and palm trees, as well as some relentless rain (just to add to the misery). As well as importantly highlighting the mistreatment of Aborigines, this film also illuminates a perhaps lesser known oppressed group – Irish convicts.
Another surprising aspect of The Nightingale is that it features a completely different kind of role for Sam Claflin. Claflin has certainly been moving on and growing up from his origins in big-budget franchises (The Hunger Games, Pirates of the Caribbean, Snow White) and rom-coms (Love, Rosie and Me Before You). In recent years, he has been taking on much more morally complex roles in The Riot Club, My Cousin Rachel and Journey’s End. The role of Hawkins here is definitely his most out-and-out villainous and evil role yet, but one he leans into well, without becoming cartoonish. He mostly sticks to his accent – which is of Northern England (yet another unexpected choice) throughout and entirely divests himself of any of the boyish charm which he displayed as recently as last year’s Adrift.
Aisling Franciosi plays the titular Nightingale (because of her singing voice) – Clare. Her and her husband are ex-convicts who are now indentured to Hawkins (Claflin) – this includes Clare having to sing for her supper as well as providing other services to Hawkins. Clare has a baby to care for and must do her hard labour (carrying water, scrubbing floors etc) with the baby strapped to her back. Hawkins and his soldiers commit a heinous crime against Clare, before Hawkins plans to travel to Hobart to take over the captaincy of that area. Clare wants to track him down, to execute her revenge and employs an Aboriginal guide, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her.
Most of the film takes place on this trek, with the spectacular scenery regularly punctuated by horrific violence. (Content Warning) It is important to note that this film contains multiple scenes of rape and should be approached with caution. The unremitting nature of the brutality is wearying and wares the audience down, stretching their patience to breaking point (there were many walkouts at Sundance). But perhaps this is exactly the effect that Kent was trying to have? It is not easy to watch, but should it be easy to be confronted with the darkest recesses of British and Australian colonial history, especially if you are from those places? I saw The Nightingale on Australia Day – a day (like Columbus Day), which should prompt some reflection from the white inhabitants of Western countries which have indigenous populations. The treatment of the Aborigines is especially hard to witness – with them being completely dehumanised by Hawkins and his men. You could argue that the sheer amount of these violent scenes means they lose their potency, but the fact that it becomes a part of the cycle of drudgery for Clare, Billy and the other downtrodden characters is again, the point that Kent is making.
Ganambarr and Franciosi are both phenomenal as the mismatched pair who start off resenting one another but come to find some mutual respect. Another great find is Charlie Shotwell as Eddie – a young boy who ends up part of Hawkins’ expedition and is just someone else Hawkins can abuse and exploit. Damon Herriman was in another Australian offering at Sundance ( Judy & Punch) and even though he was playing similar characters, was unrecognisable in the two roles. The cinematography is stunning and there is the constant juxtaposition of beauty and violence. I predict that The Nightingale will inevitably prove too much for most critics and audiences and I certainly don’t blame anyone who struggles with it. However, I believe it is an important film, saying something vital about the past which needs to be heeded today. It features strong performances and beautiful scenery and is definitely worth watching – even if you can only handle it once.