Watching a poor Irish woman and an Aboriginal Australian teaming up to murder-death a rapist British solider in the Tasmanian wilderness is something I never knew I always wanted to see. That being said, writer/director Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook is never quite as transcendent or elucidating as the subject matter and premise may suggest.
When dealing with atrocities that borrow from history, the “sweet spot” is showing just enough to give appropriate weight to real tragedy while not reveling too much in the brutality. The Nightingale doesn’t exactly “revel,” but it does pile on depraved abuse after gasp-inducing depraved abuse. Kent’s unparalleled skill means this was a deliberate choice, one certainly not undertaken lightly. However, the end result is a gender-flipped, boilerplate revenge movie that will likely psychologically punish the very people it most supports.
Set in Tasmania—Van Diemen’s Land if you’re nasty—in 1825, The Nightingale is primarily the saga of Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict who is “owned” by a British solider and curdled chunk of blood pudding named Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Despite his promises, Hawkins refuses to free Clare and allow her and her husband to raise their new baby in peace. Instead, he kind of does the exact opposite, really.
When Hawkins and his goons, Ruse (Damon Herriman) and Jago (Harry Greenwood), set off into the wilderness in an attempt to secure Hawkins a promotion, Clare enlists the help of Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal tracker, to hunt them down. Also, “enlists the help of” really means “pays but also keeps Billy at musket point.” The pair soon find themselves united in righteous anger, the release of which will mend no wounds but certainly create some new ones.
The Nightingale imbibes of every long-steeped revenge-flick cliché. Kent’s nimble direction combines with the profound deliberation of Fraciosi and Ganambarr to almost float above the predictability. Almost. Clearly, the film is far more intent on serving a fable that frames impoverished women and native peoples as a united front against the savagery of white colonialism.
No doubt, Kent and company did their homework, with a credited Aboriginal consultant (Jim Everett) and a genuine dedication to make Billy a fully fleshed character in his own right. And yet… Without being versed in Australian history, without understanding the complex cultural nuances, The Nightingale sure feels like just a movie about a white woman dragging a native person further into a nightmare because she’s mad. I’d need someone far more educated than me to help me decide if the final half hour is either hauntingly beautiful or maybe kinda exploitative.
Kent could have done anything after The Babadook became a genuine cult hit (and legitimate LGBTQA icon). A historical revenge opera was certainly delightfully unexpected, and her passion and painstaking skills are unquestionable. It definitely feels like the sort of film that is designed to provoke a substantive reaction. Because I respect the subject and filmmaker so much, it makes me wish I had one.
Grade = C