THE NIGHTINGALE redefines all preconceptions you have about horror films and sheds a harsh light some of the most disturbing and untold aspects of colonialism in Australia; the most nauseating of which is the truth that lies within them.
Director Jennifer Kent is a detailed and masterful storyteller, painting the film with the same skin-crawling tension from her notably-acclaimed horror, THE BABADOOK, but through the eyes of Clare (Aisling Franciosi) in the heart of Tasmania in the 1800s. Our young Irish protagonist is an ex-convict, living out her days as a maid in a large household, while also being at the beck and call of the English military in the process of colonising the land. While it may seem fortunate that she has a small hut on the land for her family, this comes at the price of her servitude to the young Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). After a drunken brawl, in which Clare’s husband Aidan begs the soldier to allow them passage to start a new life, Hawkins and his men descend upon the family in an almost unspeakable manner. The screams still echo in one’s mind after, as Clare is brutally gang-raped while her husband is forced to watch, and then murdered alongside their baby in a horrifically grotesque manner. This traumatic episode is foretelling of future sequences in the film, but you are left feeling hollow inside from that moment on.
The rest of the film then hinges upon Clare’s ordeal and how this drives her journey of vengeance to hunt down the men who killed the only people she had left in this world, as the soldiers head North to request promotions. This is where we meet Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an aboriginal native who she pays to guide her through the bush in search of them. She doesn’t reveal her initial intentions, and the pair bicker incessantly for the first stages of the journey, both cautious of the other. Clare begins to mellow out, her distrust in him is a mirror of the adopted racist fears of the natives, who have had their lands stolen, forced into slavery and shot at a moment’s fancy by the Englishmen. But as the journey intensifiers, they in return become more subdued and share their stories, Billy coming to understand Clare’s background as a poor Irish immigrant is victimised in a similar way to Billy’s tribes. However, in turn, she also becomes aware that her saving grace is also being white. The film just tentatively swerves the whole saviour narrative by the very nature that Billy’s wit and sneakiness save their skin on more than one occasion, and his adamant refusal to bow to her beck and call. Their shared intense hatred of the English spurs them on through the hike of a completely unforgiving landscape, being driven on by their own vendettas; two souls suffering together. When she starts to become delirious from lack of food, exhaustion and her post-pregnancy suffering, she allows herself to open up to the songs and practices of the aboriginal natives including profound moments of ceremonial sharing which delivers slithers of lightness and a semblance of kindness in what is, frankly, a mostly grim viewing. Ganamabarr is an exceptional actor, as the plot goes on we see his story develop and he remains this emboldening beacon within a contextually dismal situation. There is no Hollywood style romance, more of a mutual understanding of their final destination.
“The bare bones of THE NIGHTINGALE are that it is exceptionally uncomfortable and sickening to watch at times, yet it is a necessary viewing.”
One of the controversial issues of the film is the excessive amount of sexual violence and assault all women in the film face, and equally the graphic deaths of many characters, which do accurately reflect on the reality of the time period, but to a stage it becomes so horrific and traumatic, as the audience writhed in their chairs and people walked out in tears. It is a prominent reminder that trigger warnings are a necessity, even within the festival circuit, as while there is the responsibility of historical accuracy in the retelling of a story, this does not necessarily make the scenes any easier to watch. This is on top of the nightmare scenes Clare endures which are psychologically distorting. The ghosts of her family providing momentary comfort before their bodies start to decompose in front of her and the corpses of her enemies torment her further. Franciosi is utterly astonishing; her ridged fear within the assault scenes was enough to prick tears into the corner of your eyes and exhibits a commendable balance of determined grit, but also the succumbing to inevitable weakness during her journey. She allows these physical states to share screen space and provides a reminder that these characters are only human.
The cinematography is simply exceptional throughout, the framing of Clare embodies the tension of traditional horror, but with the widescreen focus intensely following her facial expressions, causing one to feel like an attacker is behind you and creating this permanent state of anxiety. The relentlessly cruel landscape mirrors the panning shots of THE REVENANT, but instead of a chilling barren plane, we are plunged into a dense claustrophobic wilderness. In addition, similarities in the brutish nature of men in power, including the loathsome ideals of Hawkins who mirrors the entitlement of colonialists, thinking their actions are noble and worthy of their rank, is just utterly despicable. You become very sympathetic to Clare in envoy towards her vengeance, even if her beating in the face of a fallen soldier until his head resembles little more than a crushed watermelon does churn your stomach somewhat.
The bare bones of THE NIGHTINGALE are that it is exceptionally uncomfortable and sickening to watch at times, yet it is a necessary viewing. Kent has an individualistic style that will serve her well in future work, and skilfully scars viewers with the suffering of Clare, Billy and the other victims of colonialism. It captures the violent nature of human history that gets washed out of textbooks and asserts the animalistic nature exerted by those in power. The sexual violence of women in the film is troubling and can be too audibly and visually overbearing at times, but overall the film is sure to leave a lasting, shocking impression on all.
The Nightingale debuted at the Venice Film Festival and won the Special Jury Prize and the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor for Baykali Ganambarr.