GORE IN THE STORE
THE NIGHTINGALE *****
Directed by Jennifer Kent.
Starring Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Sam Claflin, Damon Herriman,
Michael Sheasby, Harry Greenwood.
Australia 2018 136 mins Certificate: 18
Released on Limited Edition Blu-ray by Second Sight on February 1st, 2021.
Shot disconcertingly in Academy ratio and set in and around the central Australian penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (what we now know as Tasmania), Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to the wrenching THE BABADOOK is, depending on your own take, a savage western, a historical horror film or a colonial rape-revenge (Kent dislikes the term) drama. Whatever the broader label, it’s an unforgettable confirmation of her considerable talents.
The early scenes offer rare calm in an often-punishing narrative. Nicknamed ‘The Nightingale’ due to her voice, young Clare (a remarkable Aisling Franciosi) tenderly sings to her young baby, the camera hinting at the imminent threat and violence to come with its reveal of the knife in her hand. The year is 1825, and Clare and her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) are Irish convicts in servitude to Colonel Hawkins’ (Sam Claflin) British Colonial force. The routine groping, wolf whistles and general lechery she encounters escalate to a brutal assault in her home, a horrifying affirmation of Hawkins’ power – during which his underlings join in to torment her family.
The devastating initial violence unfolds without musical accompaniment or conventional tools of audience manipulation. Seldom has extreme violence on screen seemed so authentically callous, swift and gruelling. The rape of Clare is visually discreet and largely captured via excruciating shots of Franciosi’s face. The sequence is a catalyst for her mission of revenge: while she heads into the wilderness in search of some kind of catharsis, Hawkins seeks a bigger post up North after his “success” with this colony, travelling with his officers (including one conveying growing remorse for his role in the early domestic atrocities), a guide and a pre-pubescent boy. Clare is accompanied by an Aborigine tracker named Billy, beautifully played by Baykali Ganambarr.
Set against an imposing, unforgiving backdrop of slaughtered livestock and dead natives hanging from trees, Kent’s film alternates between the two disparate sets of characters and their plight – while finding surprising humour in the gravest of situations. Everyone has their own agenda but the fraught, unlikely double act between Clare and Billy (himself yearning to reunite with his family) is at the heart of the story. Calling himself “Blackbird” and initially referring to Clare as “England”, Billy finds a bond born of a mutual hatred of England and a shared need to avenge those who have taken everything they’ve got.
The “revenge”, when it comes, is as gruelling as the original assault: there is no relief or satisfaction in watching Clare’s ugly, bloody attack on a guilty party who stubbornly refuses to die as quickly and cleanly as a bad guy in an old John Wayne western. The almost-square shooting format confines the overcast, colourless woodland landscapes and makes for a claustrophobic watch, while Franciosi’s award-worthy portrayal of this grieving young woman – her body continuing to lactate, her psychological state bordering on madness and hysteria – dominates a superb cast.
It's an unflinchingly harsh film, but never exploitative. We feel every disturbing blow of every scene of violence. The closest THE NIGHTINGALE gets to genre convention in terms of visuals and its use of music is in its fleeting, disorientating nightmare sequences. The shocking cruelty of the period is captured, with Claflin one of the most despicable movie characters in recent years. Meanwhile, the odd-couple double act of Clare and Billy (at times reminiscent of THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES) provides a necessary, disarmingly tender core: a dinner table sequence in which Billy breaks down when shown a rare kindness (“This is my country…my home”) is as shattering as the most visceral moments. The final confrontation brings the expected violence and #metoo-era defiance but not melodrama – and, confirmed via the surprising beauty of the very last scene, Kent’s vision is not devoid of hope.
Extras - Second Sight’s limited-edition release, housed in a rigid slipcase with original artwork by Laura Racero, three collectors’ art cards and a 40-page booklet, is adorned with insightful extras about the film’s making and its background. Central to the package are a sequence of interviews with key personnel, headed by a 23 minute talking head piece with Aisling Franciosi, who charmingly articulates her pride in the role (one that she earned over better-known actresses who may have made funding easier to obtain), admits to being uninformed of much of the historical background and discusses a fascinating contrast between audience reactions for two of the most horrific moments in the story. Elsewhere, there are rewarding chats with actors Michael Sheasby, Damon Herriman and Harry Greenwood – alongside several key collaborators Kent brought over from BABADOOK, including production designer Alexander Holmes (who talks of realism and unavoidable stylisation) and composer Jed Kurzel.
The stand-out piece is “Bloody White People”, a 19-minute video essay from Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who reflects on Australia’s 1988 bicentennial celebrations – conveniently shunning the horrors of their colonial past – as she contextualises the only nation in the British Commonwealth that still had no treaty in place with its Indigenous people in 2020. Always a witty, engaging commentator, Heller-Nicholas offers important commentary on the film’s all-too-relevant themes of history repeating itself via oppressive white men and places THE NIGHTINGALE in the context of ‘rape revenge’ cinema.