If there’s one film this year that needs a warning before seeing it, it’s The Nightingale. On its debut at the Venice International Film Festival last year and a few months ago at the Sydney Film Festival, it received multiple walkouts due to explicit and graphic sexual content. It’s fair to say that those reactions are completely understandable.
Set in 1825 Tasmania—then called Van Diemen’s Land—21-year-old Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is under the jurisdiction of despicable British Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). After atrocities are committed by Hawkins and fellow lieutenants, Clare vows revenge and hires an Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to help take her to Hawkins.
After the critical success of her debut film The Babadook—one of the best horror films to come out in the past few years—writer-director Jennifer Kent received a deluge of scripts from Hollywood. Instead, she turned them down to tell this harrowing and immensely important Australian story. It’s impossible not to admire her for doing that. While The Nightingale is certainly not easy viewing, I’d argue it’s essential for all Australians to watch.
As a rape-revenge film, this is extremely different to last year’s Revenge which favoured hyper-stylisation and frequent kinetic energy. Kent really grounds this story in its era, favouring bleakness and introspection over flash and grandeur at every turn—which is absolutely for the best in a story with this amount of historical importance attached to it. After her work on The Babadook, this is evidence that Kent loves to deliver genre films with real stylistic grounding and a sense of stark emotional realism over flashiness and bombast.
This is without a doubt the most harrowing and disturbing film I’ve seen in 2019 to date. It’s a film laced with pain and injustice, where Clare and Billy are treated on a sub-human level. Kent’s work in portraying this historical period and colonisation itself should be placed into the forefront of the Australian public consciousness. It’s a work that should certainly resonate more in Australia than overseas. It should really ask people to confront Australian history’s torrid examples of dehumanisation and society’s frankly disgusting attitude towards gender and race.
While it’s a harrowing story of revenge, it’s also an emotionally enriching story about two completely different people having to come together and realising they share more in common then they’d ever thought. Yes, that’s not exactly a new idea, but in the context of this story and the period, it’s an incredibly enriching one. Clare may be Irish and Billy may be an Indigenous Australian, but they both sing and speak in their native tongues—and they share the same emotional wounds.
Kent as a director loves to really emphasise the pain of situations through a harrowing close-up. She captures the film’s more graphic scenes really through the lens of the character’s face solely. It works so effectively and hits a harrowing, emotional sweet spot due to the truly incredible work from Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr. These are without a doubt two of the strongest performances of 2019 to date, and if this was an American film, I’m confident there would be prominent awards buzz for both as of now. They give such rich and depth-filled work in extremely challenging roles, largely because their characters face so much extreme physical and emotional torment.
Franciosi is transcendently great as Clare. With her character experiencing such trauma in the first 30 minutes alone, you are forced to sympathise with her and really feel her immense pain and anguish to effectively set up the emotional stakes of her quest for revenge. She must be fierce and strong, yet sell that emotional rawness when she’s facing extreme trauma and it’s haunting to watch. The brilliant communication of pain through a simple frame is a testament to Franciosi’s talent. Baykali Ganambarr is also superb as Billy, having to be reserved while also expressing real emotional baggage in the subtlest of ways. A moment where Billy painfully states, “This is my home,” is one of the most powerful moments of cinema I’ve seen this year, and sums up how important this film is on a historical level.
The film’s villains—the British officers—are arguably Kent’s most challenging aspect to nail. In a film like this it’s important to depict the disgusting, toxic tendencies while also not creating characters too cartoonish so that they don’t fit within the film’s grounded and realistic tone. Fortunately, Kent finds a fantastic middle-ground. Sam Claflin gives an incredibly sinister performance as Hawkins, one which was incredibly effective for what Kent was trying to depict. He is a sinister, heartless person but there are hints of humanity in the character’s little insecurities. Those bits of humanity are never there for you to sympathise with him, but to understand his disturbed and frustrated headspace.
Even in a period piece like this one, Kent brings a touch of her horror prowess in the film’s haunting nightmare scenes. Cinematographer Radek Ladczuk—who also shot The Babadook—gives the film what could almost be considered a dirty atmosphere. The greenery of Tasmania is heavily on show, but it feels more foreboding and threating than enchanting and lush. It’s not a fast-paced, revenge-driven drill ride. Kent wrings tension and emotion out of Clare and Billy’s relationship. She never shoots any of its violence to be ‘enticing’ visually. Everything associated with violence is painful. There’s always darkness and bleakness at the forefront—as there should be.
It’s the last film I’d call an easy watch. There’s many a moment where you’ll cringe simply by the events depicted on screen, but despite how bleak Kent wants the film to be, there’s real humanity at its core. It’s about two people, both from different ethnic backgrounds who just happen to have been stripped of everything, having to find commonality and connection due to the devastating trauma they’ve had to endure. It’s an essential film for all Australians to watch, showing a glimpse into a part of history many want to be swept under the carpet. But despite how horrifying and painful it may be, it’s the definition of an important watch. It also cements Kent as one of the most talented filmmakers working today, and maybe Australia’s finest as well.
The Nightingale is in cinemas August 29.