“I’m not England. I’m Ireland,” insists Clare, sitting exhausted beside a smoldering fire in the middle of a Tasmanian forest. She’s talking to Billy, a Letteremairrener tracker, and he’s having none of it. “You’re England,” he replies. Identity sits at the crux of The Nightingale, a visceral and impactful revenge tale of two individuals who’ve faced the brunt of British colonialism, rebelling against a system that has done all it can to strip them of their nationality. Clare is an Irish convict, the victim of unspeakable violence by Hawkins, the repulsive officer in charge of a desolate penal colony. Billy, an Aboriginal Tasmanian, has also suffered at the hands of white men, his family murdered by invaders to Australia. Together, they chase Hawkins and his band through the rugged hills and woodlands, hell-bent on retribution.
As with her 2014 breakout hit The Babadook, director Jennifer Kent has created a harrowing experience. While exhibiting a few similar stylistic flourishes as her psychological drama (Clare’s ghost-ridden, magic realist nightmares are particularly hair-raising), the horrors of The Nightingale remain grounded in a daunting reality, and the film is all the more grueling for it. This isn’t the 19th century of a period costume drama; interiors are dark and uninviting, uniforms ripped and stained by churned mud, faces scratched and bloody. Dealing with such serious subject matter, it’s only right that the film stays away from sensationalism. Camera movements are kept to a minimum and the soundtrack is never overbearing. 1825 Australia isn’t a setting made for entertainment, and Kent takes care never to exploit it. Her 4:3 aspect ratio is a window into a place and time dominated by genocide and brutality.
Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr play Clare and Billy, respectively, and their stellar performances carry us through the film’s admittedly extensive runtime. Initially the two characters are foes; Clare’s happy to keep her gun trained on Billy at all times. He hates her just as much as he hates the English, only helping her for the money. But as Clare learns about the injustices Billy’s faced and as he realizes she shares his hatred, they become allies united by a common enemy. Sam Clafin delivers an appropriately unvarnished turn as the vile Hawkins, the polar opposite of Franciosi and Ganambarr’s empathetic presences, and along with his gang of goons he makes us root all the more for vengeance.
The Nightingale is by no means an easy watch—an early scene had me tearing up over its graphic nature—but it is no doubt a film worth watching. The gratuitous violence that so often plagues cinema isn’t ground that Kent wishes to tread here. Her approach is tactful, and nonetheless provoking, exploring issues of PTSD, abuse, and the blight of colonialism with a deft touch and appropriate sensitivity. While it may feel needlessly long and repetitive at times (Clare’s dream sequences, for example, make the same point over and over), there’s a clear direction to the plot and a heft to the story that makes The Nightingale incredibly complex. Moments of beauty are rare, but not entirely dismissed. Clare’s singing of a Gaelic melody or the sunset over the Southern Ocean are reminders that even in the darkest of times, hope is still possible.