Did the world need the 21st century version of Sophie’s Choice? That movie was considered one of the best of the decade, but viewers could only watch it once. Enter The Nightingale, ready and more than able to take that position for the next 100 years. Chilling, haunting, bracing, repulsive, heartbreaking…these are all apt descriptors of various parts of writer/director Jennifer Kent’s sophomore feature film release.
It may be excruciating to watch, but it is also spectacularly good, and likely to remain on the top of my best of 2019 list. At least I think so. I’m not watching it again to make sure. This is to say, if potential viewers are triggered by scenes of rape, torture, and murder, move along. This is not the revenge drama seen from the feminine gaze you’re looking for.
The Nightingale, Kent’s first feature release since her 2014 critically acclaimed study of grief masquerading as a horror flick The Babadook, is an intense, powerful film. It is the story of Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict, who seeks revenge after a British officer (Sam Claflin), and several soldiers under his command perform terrible acts of violence that leave her injured, and her husband and baby dead. She chases him through the dangerous Tasmanian wilderness with the help of an Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), who has his own deep emotional wounds sustained when his own family was brutalized and killed.
In the film, there are protracted scenes of barbarism, sometimes by the soldiers, and sometimes by Clare, as she is exacting revenge. Honestly, Clare’s actions are largely far more visually violent, and Kent doesn’t cut away during any of it. Though some critics will take issue with Kent’s cinematic choices, I’ll argue that every moment has its purpose. Does the director want us to ask if we feel sated after Clare pummels the brains out of one of her targets, leaving her dripping with gore? We do not. The audience, both male and female, may start with a feeling of bloodlust, wanting those who have hurt her, wronged her, and left her with nothing to live for but vengeance to suffer, but that feeling is short-lived. Kent builds arcs of feeling from energized and vindicated, to rising repulsion, to sadness and emptiness. Her message seems to be that revenge, even for those driven by a compulsion to exact it, has a way of making a horrible situation even worse. The rage doesn’t subside, the pain isn’t lessened, and the violence doesn’t resolve anything.
None of the many male-helmed female-led revenge stories feel this way on film.
The actors are committed and authentic in their portrayals, and both Franciosi and Ganambarr offer star-making turns. They also have great chemistry together. Both their distain and growing loyalty to each other are central to the film’s engaging viewers. Sam Claflin is playing against type as Hawkins, a character that rates as one of the more terrifying onscreen villains you’ll ever see. Though mostly supported by his chain of command, he is a complete sociopath. Women and servants are his possessions, to use, discard or snuff out as he sees fit. Ganambarr’s Billy is representing the whole of the Aboriginal people, as they are rarely shown in film, and certainly not from the era when so many were killed. His work is awards-worthy.
While it’s true that The Nightingale is decidedly not for everyone, it is an important film, and it’s safe at this point to say Jennifer Kent is building to auteur status. It brings to mind Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre the Wrath of God, equally hard to watch films by auteur director Werner Herzog. May both Kent and her film get the accolades they deserve.
5 out of 5 stars.