Jennifer Kent’s unsparing revenge drama is a grueling but powerful lesson in history repeating itself.
There are some movies that can be classified as “one and done,” in which they’re well-made, even excellent, but so emotionally exhausting that you can’t imagine watching them more than once. Schindler’s List would qualify as a “one and done,” as would Requiem for a Dream and Grave of the Fireflies. So too would Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, a film in which a woman’s grief for her dead husband and anger at her emotionally troubled young son manifests as a storybook monster. Kent’s follow-up, The Nightingale, makes The Babadook look like The Sound of Music.
The Nightingale takes place in early 19th century Tasmania, back when it was known as Van Diemen’s Land and served largely as a penal colony. Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is serving a sentence for an unspecified crime, waiting out the days with her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and their heartbreakingly adorable baby until she’s set free. Though she mostly does hard labor (often with her baby strapped to her back), occasionally Clare is asked to pretty herself up and entertain the soldiers with her singing, at the request of Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who oversees her prison camp.
Considering how Hawkins looks at Clare when she sings, this feels like the set-up to a forbidden romance story. However, Hawkins is a classic brute, who uses his power to issue Clare her ticket to leave the colony as leverage to abuse and violate her. She’s an easy target for an ineffectual mid-level military man who loses a much-coveted promotion because he can’t keep his drunk, raucous soldiers in line. Like Clare, he’s stuck there, and takes out his rage and frustration on her.
Hawkins and his men leave the camp, but not before committing one last atrocity against Clare. Without giving the idea so much as a moment of reconsideration, she sets out after Hawkins, seeking revenge for what he’s taken from her. At the insistence of another inmate at the camp, she hires Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal guide, to lead her through the treacherous land. Clare resents needing a black man’s help, but it’s clear she’s not up to the task on her own. She loses their food, she gets her horse stuck in the mud. Her stubbornness and refusal to listen to Billy, even though he knows the land far better than her, continuously puts them both in danger.
Powered on pure rage and vengeance, she doesn’t understand how much Billy is putting at risk to help her, and she’s both mystified and angry every time he runs off at the sight of a white man with a gun. “Be a bit hard for a dead man to show you the fuckin’ way,” Billy retorts. They don’t eventually bond so much as come to an understanding — both of them have lost everything, thanks to Hawkins and men like him. Rather than directing their anger at each other, they let it more them forward, with single-minded determination to catch up with Hawkins, who is weaving a path of mindless destruction on the way to another chance at a promotion.
You’re going to hear a lot about the brutality of The Nightingale, and how many times female characters are sexually assaulted in it (three, if you’re wondering). It’s important to point out that it’s never presented in a way that’s meant to be titillating, or exploitative. There’s not even a sense that the perpetrators are enjoying the physical aspect of it so much as the humiliation it’s causing. Rape is depicted as exactly what it is, an act of small men who know nothing except how to hurt people, and who fold in the face of those who are more powerful than them. It’s not sexy. It’s exhibiting ownership, planting a flag in someone’s flesh.
Just as it’s unflinching in its portrayal of sexual assault and violence, so too is The Nightingale honest about the idea of revenge.
The movie is unsparing in portraying the petty, mindless cruelty white men inflict on those they feel are beneath them. It will be hard, but you shouldn’t look away. Jennifer Kent has stated that she wanted to bring attention to a little known period in world history, but one can’t watch The Nightingale and not think of what’s taking place along the U.S. southern border, the atrocities being inflicted against human beings who are perceived as animals, insects to be squashed. One can’t regard a serial rapist like Lieutenant Hawkins and not think of the recent story about millionaire Jeffrey Epstein, and his plan to forcibly inseminate dozens of young women in some sort of eugenics experiment. You won’t come away from The Nightingale thinking “thank god we solved that problem.”
At almost two hours and twenty minutes long, watching it feels a little like you’re holding your breath, and when the inevitable vengeance finally comes, it’s surprisingly subdued. There’s no sense that the scales of justice have been righted, or that either Clare or Billy get any sort of real peace from it. If anything, the closer Clare gets to satisfying her need for revenge, the more haunted she is by the events that triggered it. Just as it’s unflinching in its portrayal of sexual assault and violence, so too is The Nightingale honest about the idea of revenge. Even when it’s done, you’re still you, and pain doesn’t recede that easily.
Aisling Franciosi, probably best known as Lyanna Stark on Game of Thrones, is quietly powerful, the color of her eyes seeming to go black with fury at times. The viewer is left wanting to know more about her, both how she ended up in the prison colony, and what happens to her after the movie ends. In what is, incredibly, his feature debut, Ganambarr is simply stunning, playing a role that could easily devolve into a stereotype with humor and bone-aching sadness. Billy regards Clare’s initial hostile treatment of him with something almost like cynical amusement — she needs him more than he needs her, but that doesn’t stop her from ordering him around like a pack animal. He’s not surprised. It’s what he’s come to expect from people who look like her.
Claflin, in a decidedly different role from dreamboat Finnick Odair in the Hunger Games series, plays perhaps the second most frightening antagonist of 2019 after Red in Us, but without all the hamming and theatrics that such a role usually requires. In less capable hands, Hawkins could come off like a cartoon villain, all but twirling an invisible mustache. Nevertheless, his most chilling scenes are the quietest ones, when he befriends a young boy, seeing something malleable and teachable in him. After Hawkins asks the boy if he’s crying, the boys snap “Tears are for girls,” with disgust in his voice, and the look of pleased recognition in Hawkins’ eyes could freeze your blood.
The Nightingale is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with wide release scheduled later this month.