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.
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