Review: 'The Nightingale'

Tuesday, August 13, 2019
A still from 'The Nightingale'.

Revenge Is Never a Straight Line. It's a Forest.

2018 / Australia, Canada, USA / 136 min. / Dir. by Jennifer Kent / Opened in select cities on Aug. 2, 2019; locally on Aug. 16, 2019

by:
Andrew Wyatt

Note: This review contains minor spoilers.

The Nightingale is a film of staggering cruelty. The feature’s writer and director, Jennifer Kent, established a formidable international reputation with her creepy, psychologically transgressive horror hit The Babadook (2014). While the director’s sophomore feature isn’t a horror film in the traditional sense, The Nightingale is a work steeped in the sort of unforgiving, authentic brutality that would make a grindhouse gorehound blanch. Set in Tasmania in 1825, Kent’s film is unsparing in its depiction of the everyday monstrousness of 19th-century British colonialism – as well as that system’s close yet complicated connection to misogyny. It’s a sharply political work that doesn’t feel didactic for one moment of its intentionally exhausting 136-minute running time, in part because the director is so adept at thrusting the viewer into the rawboned, harrowed headspace of her protagonist, 21-year-old Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi, in an undeniable breakout performance).

Over the first half-hour of The Nightingale, Kent expressively sketches Clare’s miserable circumstances with a keen-eyed affinity for detail – such as the kitchen knife that the woman clutches defensively while walking along a wooded path, even as she sings sweetly to her infant child. Convicted of theft at a young age, Clare now lives as a glorified slave to a British lieutenant, Hawkins (Sam Claflin), at a remote wilderness outpost in colonial Tasmania (then Van Dieman’s Land). Although she is married to fellow Irish Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and is caring for her newborn, Clare is obliged to work long, grueling hours as a scullery maid in the garrison kitchens, to sing for the troops on command, and to submit to the lieutenant’s vicious sexual assaults. It’s technically been three months since her sentence was completed, but Hawkins has no incentive to issue the letter recommending Clare’s release. Resentful at his backwater posting and burdened with a platoon of hard-drinking, ill-disciplined soldiers, the lieutenant humiliates and abuses Clare as an outlet for his seething frustrations – in between murderous sorties against the local Aboriginal people.

During an inspection, a visiting captain reveals that Hawkins has not been recommended for the promotion and reassignment he desired, setting off a terrible chain of events for Clare. His confidence bolstered by drink, Aidan confronts the already-livid lieutenant about his wife’s overdue release, and raised voices eventually escalate to blows. This incident only compounds Hawkins’ burning sense of professional disgrace, and later that night he storms into the couple’s hovel with his drunken infantrymen in tow. In a scuffle that spirals into atrocity with nightmarish speed, the soldiers inflict a veritable horror show of unfathomable violence against Clare and her family. Everything in her life collapses into one shattering singularity, leaving Clare utterly alone and broken – or so Hawkins and his men assume, to their eventual peril.

Kent presents these awful events in a manner that emphasizes Clare’s agony and powerlessness, and for this reason, it has a sickening intimacy. While the director’s choices reflect a female filmmaker’s sensitivity to the psychological details of Clare’s ordeal – such as the way the woman’s glassy gaze fixates on her shack’s dusty ceiling as a means of dissociation – there’s no point in glossing over the severity of the feature’s graphic violence. The Nightingale will test many viewers’ ability to stomach unblinking cinematic depictions of human barbarism. The night that incites Clare’s unholy mission of vengeance is only the opening act in the film’s litany of rape and murder, much of it salted with unapologetic (even gleeful) racism. Indeed, the film’s screening at the Sydney Film Festival in June reportedly prompted the inevitable indignant walkouts from some audience members. (The feature's U.S. distributor, IFC Films, prudently included frank content warnings with screeners issued to critics.)

The obvious question is whether all this misery – however accurate in its depiction of Australia’s colonial history  – adds up to something meaningful, or just the contemporary prestige version of an exploitation rape-revenge flick such as I Spit on Your Grave (1978). Like Jen and Sylvia Soska’s American Mary (2012), Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. (2017), and Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge (2017), Kent’s feature employs the sub-genre’s lowbrow conventions for revisionist, feminist ends. However, The Nightingale lacks the self-aware sleaziness and gallows humor that typically characterize such neo-exploitation works. In terms of setting and tone, it is a closer relation to the Aussie “meat pie Western,” especially that subgenre’s grimmer, de-romanticized 21st-century entries like The Tracker (2002), The Proposition (2005), and Sweet Country (2017). Kent puts her own haunted spin on this sort of blood-soaked bush tale, slowing things down to a crawl and submerging the film in her heroine’s bad dreams and black hate.

The morning after her old life is obliterated, Clare discovers that Hawkins has abruptly departed the outpost with a small band that includes soldiers, convicts, and an Aboriginal guide. Headed overland on foot to his company’s headquarters to the north, the lieutenant is under the perhaps-myopic assumption that his boldness will secure him the captaincy that he has been denied. Clare, who is so hungry for blood that she doesn’t even take time to bury her dead, seeks out an Aboriginal guide of her own in the form of Billy (newcomer Baykali Ganambarr, just as impressive as Franciosi). A sullen yet hard-headed young man, he is persuaded by the promise of an eventual payday, once Clare hocks the jewelry and other mementos the lieutenant has gifted to her over the years. Their tetchy, cross-gender, cross-racial alliance thus struck – a kind of rancorous historical forebear to Walkabout (1971) – the pair race to gain ground on Hawkins’ party, even as Britain’s Black War against the indigenous Tasmanians rages around them. Although Billy doesn’t yet know of Clare’s murderous intentions, her dead-eyed zeal is plainly burning white hot. Indeed, her recklessness puts both of their lives in jeopardy on more than one occasion as they traverse the bush’s buzzing forests, stony hills, and swollen rivers, perpetually nipping at Hawkins’ heels.

While The Nightingale functions quite fantastically as a pitiless revenge thriller – one that unavoidably recalls the hell-and-back intensity of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant (2015), absent that film’s fable-like qualities – Kent is ultimately up to something more akin to the meditations on violence and vengeance in The Great Silence (1968), Unforgiven (1992) and True Grit (2010). (Or, to venture outside the Western genre, Steven Spielberg’s 2005 cloak-and-dagger masterwork, Munich.) In contrast to the rape-revenge exploitation pictures of yesteryear, Kent’s feature doesn’t endeavor to titillate viewers with the spectacle of righteous violence. When Clare finally has one of the soliders in her clutches, the struggle that ensues is ugly stuff, as ungainly in its scrabbling desperation as John Wick’s homicidal rampages are elegant. Simply put, revenge doesn’t look daring, exciting, or even all that satisfying in The Nightingale. It looks like a journey into the bowels of hell.

This is at least partly attributable to Kent’s choice to build her tale around outsiders who have both suffered at the hands of British colonizers: an Irish woman enslaved and exiled for a petty offense and an Aboriginal man whose clan has been slain and scattered. The filmmaker walks a fine line here, depicting the way her lead characters – who initially boil with mutual, unconcealed contempt – gradually become aware of the cruelties they have both suffered, all without permitting the screenplay to slip into implausible kumbayas. (Green Book this is not.) The fumbling, uncertain empathy that Clare and Jimmy discover as they trek through the Tasmanian wilds is probably the closest thing to real humanity to be found in The Nightingale. However, their bond is less a friendship than a two-way acknowledgement that their pain is real and their grievances are deep. (Though Kent suggests, in the most delicate way possible, a longing for something more, as fleeting as a hand reaching out momentarily in the darkness.)

The Nightingale advances that, in contrast to the extraordinary injustices that often motivate cinema’s white male vengeance-seekers, the wrongs perpetrated on Clare and Jimmy are, by definition, un-extraordinary. Slavery, rape, and slaughter: It’s all in a day’s work for the British Empire. Although it would be a century and a half before “intersectionality” entered the lexicon of the social sciences, Clare and Jimmy exhibit a nascent awareness that they share a common devil draped in the Union Jack, and that battling him will require a kind of crude solidarity. Moreover, The Nightingale is deftly and consistently attuned to the ways that power manifests along innumerable axes: man and woman; white and black; native and colonist; freeman and convict. That this never feels like an anachronism is a testament to Kent’s nimble cinematic storytelling and to Franciosi and Ganambarr’s credible performances.

Implicit in the film’s sociological reflections, however, is a sour skepticism towards personal acts of retribution, especially when the villains’ actions are underlain and protected by a vast, powerful system of patriarchy and white supremacy. Left unsaid is the truism that if slain, Hawkins will simply be replaced by another cog in the colonial machine, perhaps one equally malevolent (or worse, if such a thing is possible). By offering glimpses of the intricacies of the story’s hierarchies – illustrating, for example, how Hawkins pulls an indentured orphan boy into his confidence by dangling the promise of a pistol, that totem of imperial authority – Kent cunningly questions the broader, utilitarian effectiveness of the classic revenge quest. She does this, impressively enough, without diminishing the howling pain of her heroine’s losses or suggesting that Hawkins and his men deserve anything less than death for their evil deeds.

On a more psychological level, The Nightingale also expresses a pessimistic view of revenge as an ultimately fruitless and self-destructive endeavor. An aphorism often attributed to Confucius could very well be the film’s alternate tagline: Before embarking on a journey of revenge, first dig two graves. The observation that vengeance poisons the soul might not be especially original, but Kent underlines it evocatively by means of heightened, horror-film flourishes. Clare’s nights are initially bedeviled by ghoulish visions of her slain family, but eventually her victims begin to haunt her dreams as well, gibbering from mutilated faces and wheezing through collapsed lungs. The pernicious nature of revenge can be a resonant theme; Game of Thrones (2011-19) vividly and subversively explored it before disappointingly retreating into more shopworn fantasy tropes. Kent’s feature evades such a fate, partly through the screenplay’s emotional and philosophical rigor, and partly through the hard-nosed, often horrifying authenticity of the period setting, which grounds the film in the inescapable grasp of history.

Indeed, Alex Holmes’ grimy, ragged production design only heightens the film’s intense atmosphere of stultifying doom. (As in Jane Campion’s New Zealand-set 1993 masterpiece The Piano, most of the non-indigenous characters seem to be perpetually clammy and filthy.) Frequently, the viewer feels as trapped as Clare does by this hellish environment, an island at the end of the world that is improbably swarming with the same redcoat demons that plagued her distant emerald homeland. Who could fault her for believing that she has nothing left to cling to other than her bottomless sorrow and incandescent rage? Jimmy, for his part, nurtures a myth-embellished clan pride beneath his bitterness, playfully expressing his spiritual kinship with the native blackbird and speaking fondly of his past initiation into his people’s ritual culture. It’s not until he learns of his far-flung clan’s fate that he begins to exhibit the same hollowed-out fury as Clare, the same zombified conviction that he has nothing left to live for except the annihilation of his enemies. Kent never takes her characters to task for this vindictive compulsion, but she does venture – particularly in her film’s final, aching shot – that the cold satisfaction of vengeance might be a poor substitute for the warmth of human connection.

Rating: B+

Viewers take note: The Nightingale features potentially triggering acts of sexual violence towards women, violence towards children, and violence motivated by racism.