The caged bird sings with a fearful trill, of things unknown but longed for still. In 1825, 21-year-old Irishwoman Clare (Aisling Franciosi) was rescued from a life of crime when she was 14 by British Army Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), partly in charge of colonizing Van Diemen’s Land in Australia, ridding it of native Aborigines. She, along with husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and their young toddler, are desperate to leave and be free, serving their seven-year sentence “time” by servicing the Army, but Hawkins has yet to get their written request to the right parties.
They’re done being the property of Hawkins, yet Hawkins isn’t done with them. In the span of a short period, Clare’s life becomes irreparable, forcing her to the absolute depths of a human psyche. Not ready to go quietly into the night, she collaborates with Aborginal trapper Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), and together, they’ll traverse the dangerous woods hoping to carry out vengeance on those who made their lives a living hell.
Like to go to movies to escape the world’s ills? Stay far, far away from The Nightingale, perhaps 2019’s most difficult wide-release watch. Director and writer Jennifer Kent’s sophomore effort may take place in the 1800’s, yet every theme/idea hit about every cruelty and injustice that permeates the world today. In all its savagery and hellishness, it’s close to impossible to detach from The Nightingale. Not an easy feat a director to pull off.
Kent’s follow-up to her 2014 smash in The Babadook is not tagged as an horror, but few things are horrific as what she chooses to display on screen in the first twenty minutes alone. Coming out of the festival circuit, it was reported that many people walked out at this time stamp point. It’s depression to the nth degree. After that initial period, which is needed to completely sell the seriousness at hand, Kent does flirt with being too aggressive and visceral at certain times in her approach. Instead of letting the mind paint the uneasier picture of brutality via leading dialogue and smart editing, Kent leaves nothing to the imagination. A small amount of restraint could have gone a long way in making a semi-laborious 2:20 runtime less so while still getting the point across. With that said, The Nightingale doesn’t exist to solely be 70’s era grindhouse shock-shlock. It shares notable visual and narrative similarities to 2017’s underseen Wind River, that movie also sharing a sobering story in a stark setting. Kent goes for full-on authenticity in multiple areas of her presentation, and it’s hard to debate she did not achieve this.
Boiled to its essence, The Nightingale is frontier revenge, with moments that weave in racism, tradition, white privilege, sexism, and indoctrination. These are issues that are as systemic—arguably more so—than they are individually owned, making a solution whether hypothetical or actual hard to come by. That’s all to say that by the time the cathartic climax is reached in The Nightingale, there’s no clear victory or uplifting high that Kent offers. Trauma lives with us forever, and all we can really do is utilize it to transform into more thoughtful and emotionally understanding humans.
In The Nightingale, the bits of warmth and life in a bleak story are tied to the gradual character shifts its two leads undergo. Using the term “buddy cop” is probably disrespectful to say, but all that implies on the lightest of broad generalizations is that Franciosi and Ganambarr are tied at the hip for the bulk of the film, and after the same thing despite not wanting to work together at all. Over time, both come to grips with the obvious realization that they share aspects in common past their need for justice against a despicable Hawkins, played with nastiness by Claffin.
Yet, a clear societal delineation between the two exists that Kent doesn’t run away from. There’s a difference between marginalization with privilege and total marginalization, shown with how Clare treats Billy as a means to an end until common ground is reached. Both performances are good, but Ganambarr’s—carrying agony and anger behind a pair of expressive eyes in his debut performance—stands out greatly due to his “damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t” fate that makes the decisions he goes forth with all the more impressive.
One doesn’t watch The Nightingale. Rather, one just attempts to endure it, akin to its lead characters on their taxing journey. Like them, you’ll want to stop, but Kent demands you keep watching and pushing forward, as Clare and Billy do.
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