I am writing this review as a way to express some very pent up emotions that director Jennifer Kent’s latest film has thrust upon me. The Babadook has grown to be a modern horror favourite among film fans and I certainly felt strongly about how it was able to portray grief in a nuanced way. Grief once again is a major theme of Kent’s newest work though while The Babadook was restrained in its approach, The Nightingale is anything but that. Gone are the metaphors of a grieving mother and instead we are spared no rest from a brutal depiction of loss and an attempt to reconcile tragedy, whether that be personal or cultural.
Taking place in Tasmania, 1825, we are introduced to Clare (Aisling Franciosi) , an Irish convict trying to earn papers allowing her to be free of the British Soldiers who control her. After her husband demands their freedom from the British officer, Hawkins (Sam Claflin), Clare is left raped, beaten and her husband and baby are brutally murdered. With nothing left to live for, Clare goes on a search for the British officers who were there that night to enact her revenge. From here the story turns from a simple revenge plot to a journey across the Tasmanian landscape as she is guided by Billy (Bayakali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal tracker who reluctantly helps her on her quest.
Seeing Jennifer Kent tackle grief again but this time within a period setting felt like the chance to explore interesting ideas on how different people react to tragedy. However, unlike The Babadook spends more time on the tragedy than exploring the characters reaction to these events. It’s worth noting that at Sundance London, the press screening did not have a content warning beforehand. Since then, one has been added to the public screenings but even that will be unlikely to prepare you for the images you will see. Clare, within the first fifteen minutes, is raped twice. Once used to establish her ‘relationship’ with Hawkins while the other as a way to humiliate Clare and her husband. Had this been the full extent of the on-screen sexual violence, these scenes alone would have had a greater impact as they use a layered soundscape to create an awful anxiety inducing sensation. The scene is heartbreaking but serves as incredible motivation for Clare moving forward to reclaim herself. As the film progresses , the British soldiers are shown to do the same to an aboriginal women who they find while travelling. Gone is the nuance and instead rape becomes used as a tool to further say that these men are bad: we are fully aware of their awful nature.
This is where I wish more restraint was shown in the film. We spend a long period of the film travelling with Clare and Billy whilst also spending more time with Hawkins and the British soldiers. Clare is our protagonist and having the focus being on her experience rather than those of her assailants would have helped grow a deeper connection between us and her. We have been apart of her tragedy and want her to get revenge, but why should we spend more time with the British troops other than to see them commit more violent acts? Aisling Franciosi as Clare gives a great performance as does Bayakali Ganambarr as Billy, so let us grow more connected with these characters as they share this journey. Following our protagonists solely and seeing the destructive wake the British leave behind them could have led to more impact later in the piece when Billy’s anger at the British moves from a cultural hatred for the invaders to a more personal vendetta.
It is here that The Nightingale truly lost me in the way it handles race and Clare’s position within this story. Set during a time when the British are enslaving black aborigines, little nuance is shown towards their story. We see the tragedies that the aboriginals face on a daily basis but it is treated nothing more than set dressing to a revenge story. Black bodies are constantly exploited within the film whether that is the aboriginal woman raped, the men hanged within the forest or Billy whose ending leads only to service Clare’s story. One particular scene has an almost Green Book-esque moment of Clare saying that her and her tragedy is not much different from Billy’s own tragic past. Reflecting back on this after seeing the ending only serves to leave a bad taste in the mouth that perhaps this setting was not the place to set a white woman’s revenge film. The two ideas of personal and cultural tragedy can mesh together when done correctly but here they are in conflict with each other.
However there are a few glimmering lights here that show why Kent was such an admired and sought after director. When focusing solely on the personal side and more subjective moments experienced by Clare, the film shines as does the performance from Sam Claflin whose career trajectory seems to be on a meteoric rise. The choice to have a tight aspect ratio adds a claustrophobic feeling while characters are out in the forests of Tasmania. The film is incredibly ambitious for a second full length feature but sadly it’s race politics become such an uncomfortable sticking point that it’s impossible to separate the film from this element. This film is sure to bring out a lot of thought provoking writing in regards to how both gender and race are portrayed and I look forward to seeing how others react to this film. If the aim of the film was to provoke then it accomplished its goal.
An unflinchingly violent film that is not able to tackle its politics about gender, race and violence in a nuanced way. Brutal from beginning to end but never left satisfyingly avenged.