The Babadook’s Jennifer Kent returns for her second directorial feature with The Nightingale – an incredibly raw depiction of Colonial era Tasmania that is relentless in its discomfort and makes for an extremely difficult, yet necessary, watch.
Clare, played by Aisling Fanciosi, is an escaped Irish convict who works under the obsessive gaze of English lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Clafin). She becomes a woman scorned after a series of horrific events committed on her young family by the lieutenant and his men, and embarks on a mission for cold blooded revenge. She reluctantly recruits the help of a young Aboriginal man named Billy (played Baykali Ganambarr, Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best New Talent) who has lost his family and way of life at the hands of white colonialism.
Billy or Managama as he reveals, meaning blackbird, finds himself on his own redemption mission for the crimes against his people that he is exposed to on the journey. Clare soon learns that her story, while horrific, is simply one of the endless tales of loss and grief felt by all who surround her and that she has more in common with Billy than she had first anticipated. Their quests eventually become one as they realise they have both been robbed of their right to family, freedom and culture.
If this movie were fictional the violence might be considered gratuitous and there have been some comments that it is, yet the reality of these depictions is that they were the reality. One can read about the atrocities done unto indigenous Australians during this era from a history book but Kent wants to make sure we know exactly what happened in a way that has not been done before on screen. We are left with no gaps in our imagination when it comes to the physical and sexual abuse suffered by so many. There are no implications, no metaphorical interpretations to be made – it’s extremely raw and accurate cinema executed with haunting performances that linger on long after the credits roll.
There are scenes in this movie that are near impossible to watch – the whole movie itself is near impossible to watch. Several people left the theatre within the first 20 minutes as it wastes no time exchanging pleasantries or appeasing audiences before getting straight into it. The result is a constant feeling of unease that accompanies any white male that appears on screen. Relationships between all of the characters are tense and unpredictable and leave us longing for some forgiveness and harmony, ultimately a key message from The Nightingale.
As portrayed in The Babadook, Kent presents relentless nightmarish grief with well styled poignancy. There are no happy memories left for protagonist Clare as she has constant flashbacks to the night of her family’s murder. Anyone that has seen her first feature will know that the comfort of Clare’s hallucinations are only fleeting and will make for some of the most unsettling parts of the film.
A crucial component in the film is the location. Filmed in rural Tasmania, the landscape is aesthetically beautiful but depicted as brutal and unforgiving, commanding respect. Kent puts great emphasis on the ignorance and haste of white characters to brave the Australian wilderness (to their own peril) in stark contrast with the spiritually sacrosanct relationship the Aboriginal characters have built with the land. The weather and inherently the entire mood of the film is constantly overcast and tenebrous but given the nature of the events is something one doesn’t realise until the very end. A revelation and use of pathetic fallacy that makes for the most visually stunning scenes of the entire film.
The Nightingale is an intense, breathtaking and essential piece of Australian film and a story that I didn’t realise so desperately needed to be told on screen in the way that Kent has done. It’s an experience that is completely traumatising, but if that is what it takes for us to truly fathom the dark history the Australia we know today is founded on, then so be it.
Director: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr
Writer: Jennifer Kent