The Nightingale, 2019.
Directed by Jennifer Kent.
Starring Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie and Magnolia Maymuru.
In 19th century Australia, an Irish convict embarks on a mission of violent revenge when her family is attacked by a group of English soldiers.
The Nightingale is a film about violence; it is unrelenting in approach, uncompromising in perspective, and uncomfortable to watch. Set in a British penal colony – now Tasmania, then Van Diemen’s Land – at the height of imperial rule, The Nightingale is a story of traumas both political and personal. Arguably, it’s a rape/revenge movie – The Nightingale follows Clare (Aisling Francoisi), an Irish convict and indentured servant, who pursues retribution after a group of English soldiers attack her family. But as others have pointed out, The Nightingale resists easy categorisation, and to ascribe it to the rape/revenge genre obscures exactly what the film is doing. This is not a film where heightened violence offers an erotic thrill, nor one where exaggerated aggression gives way to comedy. Here, it’s just vile.
In The Nightingale, violence manifests as ownership, dominance, power. Of course it does, though; The Nightingale is incisive in its willingness to be upfront about this, to posit a simple truth about how power wielded over others is at the heart of such sheer brutality as this. It’s right there in the title: the identity imposed on Clare by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), another way the British soldier exerts control over the Irish convict. Hawkins is just a metonym, though, for the wider framework of colonialism – the choice Hawkins imposes, forcing those around him to become either victim or aggressor, is simply a reflection of how institutionalised violence simply begets more violence. Kent lingers on the violence, lingers on assault, lingers on the casual, visceral nature of this world; the camera holds its gaze far longer than one can bear, deliberately unsettling audiences and challenging them not to look away. Indeed, The Nightingale is designed for the cinema experience – being able to look away from the laptop screen and check Twitter defeats the point of Kent’s unrelenting direction, however necessary it might sometimes feel. As it is, the intimate cinematography and claustrophobic aspect ratio leaves the viewer somewhere between trapped and transfixed.
If there’s any “reward”, as it were, to watching The Nightingale, it’s in Aisling Francoisi and Sam Claflin’s performances. Claflin was a particularly inspired piece of meta-casting, evoking his romcom past while laying bare the aggressive entitlement that so often underpins the leading man archetype he’s known for. Indeed, it’s one among several such clever touches that come to define The Nightingale. Francoisi, meanwhile, anchors the film, offering a harrowing performance that in any just world would’ve been met with Oscar buzz – it’s the dramatic equivalent of further tearing an already open wound, pain writ large across the screen. Both actors are hugely compelling, if deeply unsettling, to watch, and it’s difficult to imagine The Nightingale working quite so well as it does with a different cast.
It’d perhaps be reasonable to ask if the film goes too far – but in a context like this, what is “too far”? If The Nightingale is anything, it is honest. Indeed, it’s notable quite how much care went into the production; Jennifer Kent consulted extensively with Aboriginal peoples (the Aboriginal language used in the film, Palawi Kani, is near-extinct, and this is the first time it has been used onscreen), as well as several clinical psychologists. It’s hard to criticise the film for being too visceral, because that is what colonial rule was like – and, though it seems obvious to point out, this is only a representation of such violence anyway. The real thing, of course, was far worse.
Still, though. The Nightingale remains a challenging, deliberately difficult piece of art. There’s a value in that, of course: there is a value in challenging cinematic norms and conventions in terms of how we approach and perceive violence; there is a value in offering a depiction of colonialism which is honest first and foremost; there is a value in a film that resists easy viewing. At the same time, it’s hard to exactly recommend The Nightingale. It walks a very thin line, and sometimes there are missteps – moments where it feels less like a film about violence, and simply a violent film. There are moments where it loses track of its own narrative, and whether it actually answers the question Jennifer Kent set out to pose – “What are the alternatives to violence and revenge?” – is hard to judge. Certainly, Kent’s insistence that The Nightingale is “about a need for love, compassion and kindness in dark times” doesn’t always quite ring true, that message somewhat lost in a film quite so bleak.
In the end, The Nightingale is a film much easier to respect than to like – but then, you aren’t really supposed to like it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★