The Nightingale, Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s riveting follow-up to The Babadook, is not your typical rape-revenge thriller, nor simply an historical drama, but rather a complex tale of love, violence, and revenge told from a femme centric perspective.
The film is set in Tasmania during the genocidal civil war between British Colonists and Aboriginal Australians in 1825. After a young Irish convict (Clare/Aisling Franciosi) is violently raped by an abusive British officer (Lt. Hawkins/Sam Claflin) and watches her family meet a disturbing fate, she takes justice into her own hands, pursuing her rapist and his murderous men through a dangerous, heavily-wooded forest with the help of a reluctant Aboriginal tracker (Billy/Baykali Ganambarr). During their harrowing journey together through the rugged wilderness, Clare and Billy discover they share more in common than they first realized. In time, they come to understand, trust, respect and take care of each other. Billy recognizes the anger and hatred consuming Clare. Despite coming from distinctly different cultures, they are both victims who have experienced deliberate cruelty, injustice, pain, loss and tragedy at the hands of oppressive Colonizers.
While the film is difficult to watch because of the violent imagery, it’s no more so than other films helmed by male directors that feature rape. The brutal final scene in Richard Brooks’ Looking for Mr. Goodbar” from over 40 years ago comes immediately to mind. What makes The Nightingale so effective and profoundly moving is the way in which the story unfolds and how skillfully the actors evoke the humanity of their characters. Kent’s masterful writing and direction foster empathy for the plight of all the characters, both good and bad. She avoids the usual cathartic violence and exploitative storytelling tropes of revenge thrillers we’re accustomed to, and elicits strong, compelling performances. Kent takes an unflinching look at Colonialism — how racism and gender violence affect us, how they have always been used as weapons of war to marginalize and destabilize a vulnerable society, and why compassion is so essential.
The film’s production values are uniformly excellent. Radek Ladczuk’s gorgeous yet foreboding cinematography and Simon Njoo’s taut, tightly paced editing elevate the suspense and fear that something terrible is always about to happen.