Tuesday 5 November 2019

The Nightingale (Australia 2019: Dir Jennifer Kent)

It’s 1825, and Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish woman sent to serve a prison sentence for theft on the island of Van Diemen's Land, now Tasmania. With her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and a young baby, she has served her sentence and is waiting for passage off the island. But she remains tethered to her English master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who has been sexually abusing her and is in no hurry to process the papers that will allow her to leave. Hawkins presides over a misfit garrison of soldiers while he awaits a more prestigious posting elsewhere on the island.

In a series of events Aidan challenges Hawkins over his unfairness, and Hawkins receives disappointing news about his prospects for promotion. A combination of alcohol and scarcely contained hatred for those around him leads Hawkins to leave his station with his drunken men and travel on foot to make personal representations to his superiors about his prospects. But not before they visit the hut where Clare and her family are living, and perpetrate a crime so horrendous that Clare, the only survivor, hires an Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to follow Hakwins and his men - who continue to perpetrate murderous crimes on the journey - and seek revenge.

The early scenes of Jennifer Kent’s excoriating follow up (in chronology only, there’s no connection between the two movies) to 2014’s The Babadook are shocking: the air of violent tension is generated from the very first shot. Thereafter the film moves to (marginally) calmer waters, and the inner core of the movie, apart from an examination of the impact of violence, is the slow discovery of a close relationship between two ostensibly different people, namely Clare and Billy. Both are from displaced families, both have their own language, and importantly each has an equal hatred of their oppressors: crucially Billy promotes a non-violent response, whereas Clare is out for blood.

Ironically Hawkins and his men have also procured an Aborginal guide - an older member of Billy's own family - but his treatment renders him an animal in the white mens' eyes. As Hawkins Sam Claflin is spectacularly unlikable, a seething mass of misanthropy and disappointment. Words cannot adequately describe his levels of disgust at the situation he finds himself in, and with the drunken fools he has been saddled with.

Ultimately this is Franciosi’s film though: she is awkward from our first sight of her, caught between love for her husband and determination to be free of the country that has imprisoned her. And her face rarely lets us forget the horror she has lived through. Arguably this is a period retelling of Meir Zarchi’s 1978 movie I Spit on Your Grave (whose alternative title Day of the Woman is fitting here) and also recalls Warwick Thornton’s savage study of Aboriginal conflict with white settlers, 2017’s Sweet Country, but it’s more than both.

A brutal film shot through with passages of mystical beauty, The Nightingale is a staggering piece of work from Kent.

A version of this review originally appeared on the Bloody Flicks website.

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