The Nightingale is ferociously good and for a second feature utterly remarkable. Writer-director Jennifer Kent had a career as an actor in Australian film and TV before making her stunning début film The Babadook (Australia 2014). That made her a name to watch and The Nightingale won the Special Jury Prize in Venice in 2018. Since then, despite strong word of mouth it has taken over a year to get a UK release and hasn’t figured as much in the recent discussions about ‘year’s best’ lists as it deserves. I can only think that the subject matter and the film’s brutal honesty have put some people off. It is matched only by Atlantique in my film viewing in 2019.
In 1825, the year that Van Diemen’s Land became an official British colony, a young Irish woman named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is desperately seeking her freedom. She has worked for long enough as a convict to be released as a free woman to join her husband (also Irish and a ‘freed’ convict) and infant. But Lieutenant Hawkins has been abusing her and treating her like his play-thing and he refuses to sign her release papers so she must continue in servitude. When Hawkins is visited by a senior officer, who finds the Lieutenant’s general behaviour shocking, all hell breaks out. A drunken Hawkins and his henchmen, Sergeant Ruse and the reluctant Ensign Jago, attack Clare and her family. Hawkins decides to march across wild open country to confront his superiors in Launceston and regain their trust. The three soldiers are joined by some convicts as porters and an Aboriginal tracker. Clare, as an unlikely survivor of the attack, sets out in pursuit with her own tracker. This is the period of the so-called ‘Black War’ with the Indigenous people of the island fighting back against the European colonisers in a form of guerrilla war.
Clare seeks revenge. I haven’t described what has happened to her, but the film is extremely brutal (18 Certificate). The ‘Black War’ was a time of genocide or, euphemistically, ‘ethnic cleansing’. The number of men in the colony greatly outweighed the number of women (white and black combined). It takes time for Clare, a Gaelic-speaking Irish woman, and Billy, the young Indigenous man, to realise that they are united against the British. In fact it takes most of the narrative for them to properly respect each other. He has all the local knowledge and skills and she has a horse and a musket and an overwhelming rage for vengeance. The film is so intense and bloody that I hid behind my hands on several occasions and when an isolated act of human kindness suddenly occurred I began to weep.
If I analyse the narrative with some distance I can see that it is a familiar tale of revenge in the form of a hunt/chase. I remembered a similar film from a few years ago, also set in the Tasmanian forest. The Hunter (Australia 2011) shares one or two elements with The Nightingale, but doesn’t dig quite as deeply into the history and the horror of ‘wild Tasmania’. Closer is a film like The Tracker (Australia 2002) and after I looked over that post, I realised that The Tracker shares an interest in songs as well as colonial history. Sweet Country (Australia 2017) is another important touchstone. These last two films both share a narrative with The Nightingale in which an Indigenous man outwits the coloniser but is ultimately brought down by the technology of the coloniser (i.e. the weaponry) and the coloniser’s confidence and arrogance, based on an assumed racial superiority and contempt for Indigenous peoples. I’m sure all colonial exploitation and repression has been and will be fuelled by the same two factors. Of course, the world may end before long because of the coloniser’s greed and indifference to the natural world. I imagine that Indigenous Australians might have lived in harmony with nature for the last 250 years if the Europeans had kept away.
Clare is ‘the nightingale’ of the title and her singing plays a significant role in the narrative. It is a terrific performance by Aisling Franciosi who is on-screen for most of the film’s running time. I did feel that I recognised her but I can’t say that the TV crime serial The Fall (2013-16) has stayed with me and that is where I would have seen her before. Now I see she has been filming a TV adaptation of Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus. She must have some chutzpah to take on the Kathleen Byron portrayal of Sister Ruth (looks a sensational cast). Sam Claflin is cast as Hawkins. I fear that I have misjudged his power as an actor. I found some of his early performances under-powered but I thought he worked well in Their Finest (UK 2016) and here he is terrifying. The third lead is newcomer Baykali Ganambarr as Billy, the Indigenous tracker. It seemed to me that he spoke English with what seemed to me to be a modern style/dialect. I wondered if this was deliberate by Kent – to suggest that the colonial oppression is ongoing? There were several credits giving information about the various Indigenous communities in Tasmania at the end of the film. I think one said that all the Indigenous actors in the film were from mainland Australia. The Indigenous population of Tasmania was effectively wiped out by the colonists (i.e. soldiers, convicts and settlers) by the late 19th century but now there are several thousand Tasmanians claiming Indigenous heritage through a history of mixed marriages.
Radek Ladczuk, who shot The Babadook for Jennifer Kent, frames this narrative in Academy ratio (1.37 : 1). Just as I didn’t notice the long running time (136 mins), I also found that I hardly noticed the framing because the tension was so great. Ladczuk also works with a palette of subdued colours in the forest, in candle-lit interiors and with costumes that emphasise the drabness of the colonial settlement – at least in the smaller settlements. It’s a shock when Clare meets some of the more moneyed classes in Launceston.
Since Jennifer Kent made her name with an innovative horror story, it is worth asking if this narrative has horror elements. I would say yes in the sense that not only is their excessive brutality but Clare is ‘haunted’ by the memories of the attacks and she has frequent nightmares – so much so that we do wonder if she hallucinates any of the events. Billy, too is affected by the sights he sees and the things he is forced to do. Sight and Sounds’ reviewer Nikki Baughan makes a perceptive comment when she concludes that Clare and Billy, unusually, do manage to have “wrought justice on their oppressors in a way that not many onscreen women and minorities are allowed to do”, but that they do not derive any pleasure or any relief from it. This is as she notes, “the most expertly landed gut punch of this astonishing, essential work”. I couldn’t agree more. This might be a hard film to find in a cinema but do try and see it.