In The Nightingale, an infuriating, devastating saga of retribution and survival from the Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent, the horrors of European colonialism are etched into every frame. Over the two-plus hour runtime, much is grueling and certainly extreme, but never gratuitous. That’s partially because Kent, who’s following up her spectacular directorial debut The Babadook. She pulls back the veil of awful history to find a cracked reflection of the modern world — and a corresponding, hard-won beauty in solidarity among survivors. We’re in 1825 Tasmania, then known as the Van Diemen’s Land, in the early days of a conflict that wiped out most of the island’s indigenous population. Set against a backdrop of wilderness and astonishing violence, Clare (Aisling Franciosi) and an Aboriginal man named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) are forced into the film’s harsh and unforgiving spotlight, forging an uneasy alliance in the pursuit of justice.
It is justice that has ostensibly brought Clare to this small penal colony in the first place. Exiled after being convicted of petty theft seven years earlier in her native Ireland, she has more than served her time under the cold, lascivious eye of a British lieutenant, Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Calling her his “nightingale” on account of her lovely voice, he forces her to sing sweet songs for his colleagues every night, then rapes her behind closed doors. Clare has a loving husband, a fellow convict named Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and an infant child, but Hawkins views her as his property — and he doesn’t respond kindly when that property tries to squirm out of his grasp. The opening scenes of The Nightingale, in which Clare loses everything and nearly loses her life, display an almost unbearable sadism and loss in grim brutality. Shooting in the nearly square Academy aspect ratio, Kent and her cinematographer, Radek Ladczuk, turn human faces into landscapes of pain. They let this early tragedy play out in a series of candlelit closeups, suggesting an overwhelming confrontation with evil.
If you make it through the first-half, you may find yourself hard-pressed to abandon your seat until the movie’s conclusion. The Nightingale isn’t just a revenge thriller; with tremendous urgency and blunt, searing power, it builds an immediate case for the emotional and moral necessity of its heroine’s actions. When we see Clare the morning after her horrific ordeal, the remarkable Franciosi signals that she has undergone a kind of spiritual if not physical death: The warmth and light has gone out of her eyes, leaving only a cold, pitiless desire for blood. But her enemy is nowhere to be found. Frustrated in his current post, Hawkins and his two other men (Damon Herriman and Harry Greenwood) have left and headed north to the town of Launceston so he can apply in person for a new position, even though he has already been rejected for said position. The movie shows us Hawkins’ professional failures not to complicate our feelings toward him — there’s not a chance of that — but rather to suggest his vapidity, the transparent mediocrity that lurks behind his moral void. Claflin, in a courageously loathsome performance, doesn’t just play a man prone to mindless acts of violence; he puts a smug face on the colonialist experiment, giving flesh to its senseless, predatory horror.
Clare, running solely on rage, sorrow and bloodlust, plunges into the wilderness after him, though not before hiring Billy to guide her over miles of treacherous terrain. Billy, too, nurses a grudge against the English invaders, who have stolen his ancestral land and, as he eventually discovers, all but wiped out his people. She’s hired him as a protective measure with risks of its own: A white woman and a black man are bound to attract even more unwanted attention traveling together than they would apart. But Clare’s determination gives her no time for caution or niceties, especially where Billy is concerned: She barks orders at him and calls him “boy,” asserting her authority in much the same way Hawkins would. In a lesser movie they might present this relationship that develops between the two as some kind of touching cross-cultural friendship. In Kent’s hands, it’s purer and sadder: a kind of blood pact between lost souls. The Nightingale doesn’t rush their communion, instead letting the animosity and distrust between them melt away very gradually, until they begin to see each other as equals, united by their profound loss and bottomless hatred.
Ganambarr, an indigenous Australian dancer making his screen acting debut, won the Best Young Actor Award at last year’s Venice International Film Festival for his sly, spirited performance, which reshapes the picture in ways both obvious and not. Billy is an excellent guide, calling on both practical sense and deep local knowledge to ensure their survival. But his most significant achievement may be to challenge and recontextualize Clare, to call her own moral and narrative standing into questions. The Nightingale isn’t one of those complacent movies that deigns to view black suffering through a white outsider’s lens. It’s about a damnably complex situation in which guilt and grief blur and barbarism has a way of breeding complicity even among the presumed innocent. Kent takes this stunningly grim material and piles injustice on top of injustice. In a sense, The Nightingale is as much a horror film as The Babadook — and indeed, Kent has built another genre picture around a lead performance of volcanic emotion that displays the transformative power of undigested grief. She also stages a few sequences that prove that she could have made another great supernatural chiller, had she not taken this left turn into the tumultuous past. Kent does bring some phantoms to The Nightingale though, but they’re of a decidedly different, more politically complicated breed: They hail not from her imagination but from history, and they cast long and terrible shadows over a present still eternally grappling with hideous legacies of bigotry, oppression and genocide.
The Nightingale never for a second stops giving us reasons to despise the antagonists. One could call this a standard rape-revenge-strategy — a way to make the audience want even harder for inevitable retribution. But Kent is too intelligent a filmmaker to play so easily to presumed audience desires. She doesn’t revel in murder, no matter how righteous or justified. This is not a “fun” exploitation movie, and its violence is never sensationalized. The Nightingale is arguably a feminist reinvention of the Western genre; even culminating with an image lifted straight from The Searchers. Except doing something more philosophically sophisticated: It acknowledges that killing will haunt you, maybe even ruin you, while also wondering aloud if there’s some evil so deep and oppressive and destructive it must be met with violence. The film takes the conventions of the revenge thriller and both cannily fulfills them and skillfully subverts them, but The Nightingale has a lot more on its mind than an exercise in genre. It’s an attempt to wrestle with the existence and mindless commemoration of evil, and to suggest both the fleeting satisfaction and the eternal futility of vengeance.
The Nightingale, to put it simply, is a lot: the screaming violations, the bodies hanging from trees, the depravity of the past Kent grimly links to the present. The film will likely be emotionally draining for many, the exhaustion of it all being the point. Through all the exhaustion there’s a tragic, moving resonance to the film’s vision of two marginalized characters — one Black, the other a woman, both stripped of everything — finding common ground in their parallel trauma to essentially fight the tyranny of the white man. It’s in the scenes between Franciosi and Ganambarr where empathy is forged and a mutual respect is earned in the fire of survival, without a hint of sentimentality. With everything building to an ending that delivers an immense emotional punch, gradually revealing a glowing heart of hope for them both. And to be the utmost honest, the ending itself brought a sense of cinematic magic, a bookend to a story that could be corny if done by another filmmaker, but with The Nightingale Jennifer Kent earns it all making us all gripped to Clare and Billy. A staggeringly profound and extremely difficult film, The Nightingale is an unnerving nightmare worth enduring, as what awaits at the end is a heaping amount of pure emotional power.