Revenge films come in many forms. Some offer up stylish violence as a catharsis to crimes against a protagonist. Others depict a quest for revenge as something bleak and incapable of satisfying. Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale is the latter. This is a brutal, grave film about Colonialism and the history of violence against "others."
The "others" in this case are women, the Irish and Aboriginal natives. Kent sets the film in 1825 in Tasmania. The British colony is teaming with disgusting behavior. In the mix of all this ugliness is Clare. Clare is married with an infant child but she is the legal property of Lt. Hawkins. Hawkins saved her from jail and now uses her in any way he sees fit. He sexual abuses her often as he bides his time to transfer to a better position.
Clare's story is a horrific and sexual violent one. The Nightingale comes with a warning about its triggering material. The warning is legit. The first hour or so of the film is especially difficult to watch. You endure it in hopes of seeing Clare rise above all of this abuse. A brutal act sets the story in motion as Clare hires Aboriginal tracker Billy to help her hunt down Hawkins and his men.
The Nightingale refuses to exploit the suffering it depicts for cheap violence or cathartic justice. The film is deeply unpleasant and aims to be. Kent is taking aim at British colonial rule with a ruthless determination. The film's premiere saw walkouts and it is easy to see why. However ugly the violence in the film is, there is no denying Kent's power as a director. The dream sequences, use of singing and overall control over the film's excellent performances shows what a talent Kent is. She is making horror films like few others at this time.
The cast is all-around remarkable but it is Aisling Franciosi as Clare that makes the film worth all the misery. Her performance is nuanced and full of layers that keep revealing themselves at every encounter she has. The other standout is Baykali Ganambar as Billy. He gives the film a soulful presence that is much needed. Sam Claflin is terribly convincing in one of the most villainous characters in recent movie history.
The Nightingale does falter in its final act. It can't maintain a pace that feels like it is building to something more explosive than what happens. It also undermines the character of Billy in its final moments. He becomes totally in service to Clare's story but the film has teased a deeper story and outcome for him along the way. The film doesn't come close to the knockout that was Kent's debut, The Babadook. However, The Nightingale is a transportive experience that will be hard to shake for some time.