Writer/director Jennifer Kent made a name for herself with 2014’s The Babadook, a horror film that dealt with themes of motherhood, depression and grief. Kent showed her flair for style and substance, weaving a memorable experience that still gets talked about. The Nightingale is her follow up film, a much different film that will leave views with a lasting impact and an experience that won’t soon be forgotten.
The Nightingale is set in Tasmania, Australia in 1825, the British have settled on the land, making Australia a place to house convicts, with no regard for its first nation people, who they see as inferior. An Irish convict named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) should now be a free woman having served her time as convict, wanting to live her life out with husband Aiden (Michael Sheasby) and baby. She is under control by obsessive British lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who exerts his power wherever and however possible. During a confrontation for Clare’s freedom, Hawkins and his men do unspeakable acts that leave Clare a broken woman hell bent on revenge. Making it her mission to find Hawkins, Clare seeks the help of Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), who is a victim of British colonization.
This film is not simply a story of revenge, it paints a very bloody portrait of the history of Australia, and the colonization. The central two characters of Clare and Billy have both been dealt a bad hand, while very different, their experiences unit them with a bond that grows throughout the film. Clare was a convict, battling to survive on her own for much of her life, then spending years under control by Hawkins. Billy was taken from his family, his people when he was a child, witnessing violence and slaughter as his land was taken over. He too has been under control by the British who decided they wanted to take over without a second thought for who else had been living on the land for thousands of years. The violence portrayed in the film is heavy, it is raw, it is hard to watch at times, but it never feels unnecessary or exploitative. This is the truth of Australia, Hawkins and his soldiers represent the arrogance and brutality of those who came here. No regard for anyone or anything, the Aboriginal people and the convicts they sent over, they saw as something to control or toss aside.
There is no doubt The Nightingale won’t be an easy watch for most, but it is an important watch. Jennifer Kent has carefully and respectfully crafted a brutal story, spilling harsh truths along the way. These types of stories need to be told, even if the history isn’t pleasant at times it can’t be ignored. The direction is exceptional, not a wasted frame, or a wasted scene, everything has its place in the story being told. Kent has reunited with her Director of Photography Radek Ladczuk from The Babadook, visually the film is striking and there is a beauty to be seen behind all the horror. Certainly not an easy task to make the film look authentic to the time, everyone involved has done such a great job in making everything feel right for the time and it puts the audience right there.
The performances here cannot be faulted, extremely raw, emotional and captivating. Aisling Franciosi is beyond words, her performance is nothing short of brilliant and what Clare goes through is so harsh, that Franciosi makes you feel every bit of her torment and pain. A very beautiful part of her performance is her singing voice, as Clare is known as a nightingale hence the title, she is made to sing for the soldiers. When she sings for herself it is quite bittersweet, but ever so spectacular. Sam Claflin tackles a very difficult role to play, there is no redeeming factor with Hawkins, he is cold and unrelenting. His performance is memorable, perhaps a career best turn. He has made a villainous character that won’t soon be forgotten in cinema history. Baykali Ganambarr makes his film acting debut here, and it doesn’t show. His performance feels like it is from a seasoned actor, the fact it is his first is incredible. He won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor at the 75th Venice Festival and it is more than deserved, this man is a gift and one can only hope he chooses to act again. Billy is a very tragic character, he goes through a lot and develops as the film goes on. Ganambarr makes the audience feel everything that he does, takes us with him on this journey and gives one of the best performances you will see.
The Nightingale is an extremely important film, well worth watching even through the violence and brutality of it all. Australian’s should embrace this film, remember the past and grow from it. Jennifer Kent is a wonderfully talented woman, ensuring she brings to light important themes with her work and leaving a strong impact. This is not a film for everyone, and the controversy certainly seems to be over hyped in a way. What is shown is not meant to be enjoyed, it is there to showcase a brutal truth and make its audience think and leave them thinking last after it has been seen. Australian cinema is special, and our stories deserve to be told, the good, the bad and the ugly.
Review written by Marcella Papandrea
Author’s Disclaimer: My sister Bruna Papandrea along with her husband Steve Hutensky produced The Nightingale. My own personal connection to the film bares no impact on my thoughts and feelings towards the film. As a critic I pride myself on viewing and critiquing content truthfully and unbiased.