Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to her breakout film The Babadook is a brutal tale of revenge set in the early days of Australian colonial history. Following a female convict who goes bush on a vendetta to bring justice to the men that defiled her and killed her family, The Nightingale captures a truly authentic sense of life in 1830s Van Diemens Land and the desperation shared by the convict class and indigenous peoples during the height of the frontier wars.
The protagonist of the piece is Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict who lives with her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and infant, waiting for the day that Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) fulfills his promise to let her go free, now her sentence has ended. However, Hawkins is infatuated with Clare and refuses to let her go, using his position to dominate and rape her without suffering the consequences. When Clare’s husband stands up to Hawkins it spells doom for the family and as a last act of vengeance before having to head to an assignment in Launceston, Hawkins takes his underlings Ruse (Damon Herriman) and Jago (Harry Greenwood) to have their way with Clare. In the chaos the men murder the husband and infant and viciously assault Clare, leaving her for dead. When she comes to, Clare is determined to seek revenge and goes bush, using a tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to find the soldiers in the vandiemonian wilderness.
The performances in this film are absolutely top notch. Aisling Franciosi is absolutely mesmerising as Clare; every emotion is raw and real and conveys the strain and pain of her struggles in every haunted expression and angry snarl. There are some scenes where it is unclear what is acting and what are genuine reactions, so immersed in the role is Franciosi. On top of this, the beautiful songs, which earn Clare her nickname “the little nightingale”, are performed by Franciosi who is a trained opera singer. Another absolutely stand-out performance is from Baykali Ganambarr as Billy/Mangana. Bringing life to Billy with humour and gravitas in equal measure, we see a young man who has experienced more than his fair share of tragedy and horror in his lifetime, desperate to find the last of his people. Sam Claflin is stomach-churningly devious as Hawkins, Damon Herriman as Sergeant Ruse is a nasty and pathetic bully, and Harry Greenwood’s Jago is weak and terrified, the trio conveying the disorderly nature of the infantry in the country at the time. With many of the cast having to be bilingual, either shifting into Gaelic or Indigenous languages, it ratchets up the authenticity all the more.
The film debuted with no small amount of controversy, with filmgoers allegedly storming out of the theatre in disgust at the violence and critics attacking Kent’s use of said violence as exploitative and gratuitous. Many of those who watched the film felt drained by the end due to the relentless grimness, but overall responses were that it was a very powerful and well made film.
For the average filmgoers that watch movies to switch off and have a good time, this film is decidedly incompatible. This is calculated to be uncomfortable and confronting; it is a film to be studied, not watched. While it does not portray historical events, it is drenched in such historical authenticity that it works better to describe history than many films that are at strains to portray themselves as true history. The life of the convict in Van Diemens Land was one of toil and suffering. Female convicts were often taken as concubines by authority figures such as guards, soldiers and employers. The female factories were equipped with facilities to deal with pregnancies and births that came as a result of the exploitation of the women imprisoned there. The horrendous treatment of the Aboriginals in Van Diemens Land/Tasmania is well known and has become a major point of historical discussion in recent decades as the tug of war between “white blindfold” and “black armband” perspectives vie for dominance in discussions of our past and Kent sought assistance from indigenous elders to ensure she was staying true to the experience of the Aboriginals in her story. Even the brutality of the violence is far from over the top when looking at events that happened in the Apple Isle in that period. The scene where Clare is raped, her husband shot and her baby killed by having its head smashed has echoes of the crimes of bushranger Thomas Jeffries, who gained the moniker “The Monster” due to his savage treatment of his victims in the 1820s in almost the exact same way. Moreover, the majority of the violence in the film is implied, rather than seen. This is not a gory movie, but the psychological effect of the implication of violence is hugely impactful, as it should be. This is not gratuitous violence, nor is it the kind of violence that one can revel in. It’s cold, it’s brutal and it’s unflinchingly real – it has consequences. No doubt such realistic horror was a frightening thing for the sort of people with a very sanitised and bourgeois view of history. There is no opulence here, no beautiful frocks or romance. This is the vandiemonian frontier in all its gloomy, savage and wild spectacle.
Where The Nightingale falls down somewhat is in the character of Clare. Her motivation is clear from the outset but as the film goes on it seems like she begins to lose focus as she bounces around between her hatred of the soldiers, her mourning for her family, her fear of Billy and her attempts to assert independence despite having no survival skills. As a result, she tends to sort of fluke her way from point to point more and more as the film progresses, which creates a meandering pace at the midpoint when the character seems to be wandering aimlessly along with those she is supposed to be pursuing. For a character that was so driven and capable at the outset of her journey, it seems bizarre that she should grow less sure of herself and less competent as her journey continues, but that is precisely what happens. The one saving grace of this unusual character development is that it helps allow Billy to step up and avenge his people, reclaiming his identity as Mangana the blackbird.
Another element that is puzzling is the decision to present the film in a 4:3 aspect ratio. The almost square framing is very odd given that the standard now is usually the much wider 16:9. To most people is just jargon, but the truncated view actually has a considerable impact on the viewing experience. While it often acts to forcibly grab the viewer’s attention and bring them uncomfortably close to the action, much of the gorgeous cinematography feels far more underwhelming than is deserved, especially when we are talking about the lovingly re-created period sets or the stunning Tasmanian wilderness. This is a minor gripe though and the stumpier screen shape is used effectively throughout, despite the shortcomings of the format (pun unintended).
The key theme of the film is the futility of revenge. We have our two protagonists, Clare and Billy, driven to seek revenge for all that has been stolen from them (Clare, her family; Billy, his entire nation). When Clare gets the chance to take her revenge she discovers that it does not alleviate the burden of her grief, merely adding to it. Where she falters, Billy steps in and follows through. There is a small degree of satisfaction in knowing that some form of justice has played out, but it is not a clean resolution. The uncertainty of the ending highlights this fact. The Nightingale highlights that debts paid in blood rarely set things to rights, they just perpetuate violence and suffering — an eye for an eye leaves the world blind.
Another core aspect of the film is class. The pecking order in colonial Van Diemens Land drives everything in the story. Hawkins is driven by his compulsion to climb the ranks, and when he fails he passes his anguish onto his underlings and the convicts by bullying them, violating them and denying them any freedom they’ve earned. Further below the convicts are the Aboriginals who are treated like vermin to be caught and put to death, with their heads taken as trophies by colonists. This is a land where laws are merely impotent words, where corruption has rotted the tooth of the law to the point that it has no bite. One need only scratch the surface of recorded Australian history from this time to see that it is no stretch of the truth to portray things in this manner.
The Nightingale is a film that some will be lucky to get through given its violent subject matter and relentlessness, but to those who enjoy the art of film and storytelling it is a piece that stands up to multiple viewings, as there is a lot to peel away and examine. It is not hard to see why it won over the judges at the AACTA awards who awarded it most of the big gongs including best director, best screenplay and best actress among others. It is safe to say this film has earned a place beside films like The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and The Tracker for daring to depict the uncomfortable truth of our past, even if it is through the filter of a fictional narrative.
The Nightingale is available to purchase in Australia on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as in digital format via iTunes, GooglePlay, Bigpond Movies, Fetch and Microsoft Network.
It is currently showing on screens in the UK and Ireland.