The Nightingale (18) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Jennifer Kent, Australia/US/Canada, 2018, 136 mins, in English/Irish/Aboriginal with subtitles where appropriate

Cast:  Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr

Review by Carol Allen

Director Jennifer Kent, who made her feature debut with the gripping psychological horror movie The Babadook, here turns her attention to what she describes as “the fallout of violence from a feminine perspective.”  

But although this film certainly has some horrifically violent moments, unlike some other female revenge stories such as Kill Bill, as it doesn’t wallow in gore.  It is far too intelligent and thoughtful for that.

Set in Tasmania Australia in 1825, young Irish convict Claire (Aisling Franciosi), known as the Nightingale for her singing voice, has served her time as servant and plaything to abusive British officer Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin).  But Hawkins refuses to let her go.  And when Claire’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) comes to her defence, Hawkins and his sidekicks brutally gang rape her and murder Aidan and their baby.

With the reluctant assistance of Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), Claire pursues Hawkins and his soldiers through the wild Tasmanian bush, as they head northwards, where Hawkins is going to argue for the promotion he believes has been wrongfully withheld from him.  The relationship between Claire and Billy is not an easy one. He resents her as a member of the race which is committing genocide against his people, while she despises him as a “black fella”.  In the course of their journey they grow to respect each other, united as they are against their common enemy, the English.

Because this is not just a simple feminist revenge tale but an expression of the horror and shame that today’s Australians feel for their colonial history and the violence their forebears committed against the continent’s original inhabitants – something evidenced in small ways, as in all “black fellas” being referred to contemptuously as “boy” to horrors, including another rape and murder we witness of a young aboriginal mother. Claire does wreak a bloody and terrifying revenge on one of her abusers but the ultimate battle has to be Billy’s.

This is a powerful piece of storytelling, strongly performed by Franciosi and Ganambarr.  Claflin, who plays his role with a working class Northern English accent, while not ducking the character’s brutality makes Hawkins more than a simple villain, indicating the frustrated aspiration that has driven and corrupted him.

The transition of the story from focussing on Claire’s revenge to the wider issue of the rape of a continent and its people is not always smoothly handled, resulting in a slight loss of the narrative drive, but in such a powerful story this is but a small flaw.

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