The Nightingale is a film that truly shook me to my core.
Van Dieman’s Land. 1825. Claire, a young Irish convict, recruits the help of Aboriginal tracker Billy to traverse through the bushland to pursuit a group of British officers who subjected her and her family to unspeakable horrors.
Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to her brilliant debut The Babadook is a hauntingly realistic and brutal examination of our nation’s history. The story specifically focuses on the war crimes committed during the early years of Tasmanian colonialism. Kent does not shy away from the details of the acts of violence; at the film’s Sydney premiere, dozens of audience members walked out during one of many gruesome rape scenes. The Nightingale is not for the faint of heart. It is emotionally draining. It made me genuinely wince. I had to turn away from the screen on multiple occasions.
The Nightingale is easily the most uncomfortable film I’ve seen since Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (interesting to note that Von Trier was in fact a mentor of Jennifer Kent). The violence of this film does not make it repelling. Instead, Kent has crafted an immensely powerful film that urges the audience to feel empathy for those who go through pain. Kent portrays how violating sexual assault is; and how desire for revenge can ravage the soul. She shows how messy murder can be.
The film is harrowing, but at the centre of it contains an important message. It forces us to reflect upon our country’s history of invasion, racism, and violence.
At the heart of the story lies two brilliant performances by Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr, as Claire and Billy. These two young actors exhibit such deep pain and sorrow that through the process of the film, we too will feel our heart ache. On the opposite sits Sam Claflin as Hawkins and Damon Herriman as Ruse. I dare you to find characters from a film this year that are more despicable than these two low-lifes.
I had only seen Claflin in The Hunger Games movies and Love, Rosie before watching The Nightingale, so I had no idea he could play evil so well. Herriman, on the other hand, almost always plays deranged monsters (such as his role in Judy and Punch, which also screened at the Sydney Film Festival). He once again nails it on the head this time around. You will love to hate him.
Surrounding the four main characters is the Tasmanian bush in all its ravishing beauty… and unforgivingness. The bush torments both Clare and the officers she is after. Only the Indigenous men and women can navigate it. Billy is the blackbird, who can guide travellers to freedom. The beauty of Australia's Indigenous culture is on display in The Nightingale, and it reminds us that it is pivotal to pay respects to the people who lived on this land long before us.
I would once again like to emphasise the utter brutality of Jennifer Kent’s vision. It is painful to watch. But for those who can take it, you will find yourself transformed by the tale’s end. It’s a true rollercoaster ride, and cements Kent as one of the most important Australian filmmakers working today.
The Nightingale screened at the 2019 Sydney Film Festival. It will be released in cinemas on August 29th.