Jennifer Kent‘s second feature film couldn’t be further from the small scale horror of The Babadook. Once again coaxing an incredible performance from her lead, The Nightingale is a beautiful, lyrical film that’s also brutal, visceral, and often very difficult to watch.
Set in 1820, during the Black War of Van Dieman’s Land, Australia, The Nightingale follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi) an Irish convict who works for the sadistic English Captain Hawkins (Sam Claflin). When a horrific encounter with the British soldiers turns her life upside down, Clare pursues those who wronged her through the perilous Australian wilderness, helped along the way by her reluctant Aborigine tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr).
At its centre is a performance from Franciosi that is frankly breathtaking. She makes Clare both vulnerable and incredibly strong-willed with a raw, painful portrayal of grief and vengeful-ness. While the film utilises her beautiful singing voice, she is equally effective in her non-verbal scenes, where her anguish is written across her face throughout the film.
Ganambarr is also a revelation as the cynical Billy. Individually, both performances are excellent, but initially the hostility between the two feels a little forced. As the story progresses though, and this gives way to a deeper, more meaningful relationship, the chemistry between the two comes into its own. The scene where they sing in their respective native languages is touching, and their reunion after they are split up is a beautiful moment as time seems to stop dead. This relationship is the heart of the film, and there is a warmth and poignancy to these scenes that shows their innate decency, and offers a glimmer of hope in an otherwise merciless film.
As Clare’s main tormentor, Sam Claflin makes for a truly detestable character but never descends into cartoon villainy. He’s an all too human character, which makes his actions seem all the more barbaric. There are a couple of brief moments that seem to explain his actions, without trying to justify them, including a shocking moment towards the end that suggest he’s more tortured than he first seems. As his main henchman and attack dog Ruse, Damon Herriman adds to his impressive roster of film credits this year. Ruse is equal parts callous and pathetic, a far cry from his iconic turn in Justified.
A genuinely tough watch (several critics walked out when the film was shown at Cannes), Kent never flinches in her depiction of the horror that Clare is put through. It’s a film that is likely to court controversy and it’s true that the violence is sudden and shocking but it’s never gratuitous. Both Billy and Clare suffer from the mistreatment of those in power, but there are moments of tenderness as well that balance the seemingly ever present barbarism in the rest of the film. Indeed, it’s telling that while Billy seems numb to the atrocities he witnesses, it’s a moment of kindness from an old couple that sees him finally break down in tears.
The Nightingale is a beautiful film, with rich, striking cinematography and offbeat editing that is reminiscent of the dream sequences in The Babadook. This holds a definite horror influence, as well as westerns and revenge thrillers. Stylistically, it feels like a hybrid of Walkabout and The Revenant, with elements of The Proposition and Dead Man, as well as one shot that is lifted directly from Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Mirror.
In a year that’s been particularly strong for independent films, this has been my favourite. The Nightingale isn’t an easy watch, but it’s rewarding if you can make it to the end. A brutal, harsh film that nevertheless has a real humanity and warmth under the surface, which manages to tackle some pretty serious material without ever feeling too worthy or self important.