Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s 2014 horror fable The Babadook was a spooky tale of a single mother whose home is invaded by a sinister spirit. But in her second feature, The Nightingale, the monsters are white human males of privilege who commit horrifying atrocities in order to maintain their presumed superior status. Set in early 19th-century Tasmania, the gorgeous primordial surroundings are in stark contrast to the constant acts of ugliness and brutality primarily committed by British soldiers against convicts from England and Ireland who are constantly debased and abused. Women and native Aborigines are placed on even lower rungs, meant to serve the needs of the ruling military class.
Make no mistake. Like most tales of vengeance against those who harm the loved ones of others, this is sheer discomfort cinema as Kent keeps lobbing violent acts at us – the main source being Sam Claflin’s ambitious, corrupt and sadistic Lieutenant Hawkins. At least she provides us with an odd-couple pair to root for in the form of Aisling Franciosi’s Clare, an Irish convict who sings like a bird, and her native guide Billy (Bykali Ganambarr) as they hunt down Hawkins and his minions together in order to get payback for the crimes he committed against them. At first Clare demeans Billy, calling him boy and bossing him around. But these second-class citizens soon form a bond over their common enemy.
While Kent makes her case again and again with nasty retributions and abrupt outbursts of violence, the only relief is a brief spate of humanity that arrives late in the film. If anything, The Nightingale is proof that humans have always had the capacity to horribly oppressed others and deny them their rights in order to feel superior — a world that still lacks justice for all.