If you’ve seen The Babadook, you’ll know just how unnerving Jennifer Kent’s films can be. Relying on real horror rather than cheap jump scares, the Aussie auteur’s directorial debut was an indie hit back in 2014 – and announced her as an exciting new talent. For her next project though, Kent has chosen a historical revenge thriller, swapping supernatural heebie-jeebies for intense, gripping adventure. Despite the different route, she’s still managed to arrive at the same endpoint – and The Nightingale is another fantastic feat of filmmaking.
Set in early 19th Century Tasmania, the story follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict woman – convicted of what, we’re not told – who is serving out her sentence abroad as a lackey for the British army. Her husband, with whom she nurses a newborn baby, is a free man, but when he finds out Clare has been repeatedly raped by the commanding officer, a violent confrontation occurs which results in the most shocking sequence you’ll see on screen this year. Seriously, it’s watch-from-behind-the-sofa-with-a-pillow-in-front-of-your-face disturbing. Without spoiling what happens too much, rape, muder and infanticide all feature.
During The Nightingale’s Australian premiere earlier this year, there were mass walkouts. Reportedly, one person could be heard shouting: “She’s already been raped, we don’t need to see it again.” Similarly, some critics have argued that Kent’s depiction of sexual violence is gratuitous, but the naysayers are missing the point. In a recent interview with NME, Franciosi said: “Unfortunately, these are the realities of what happened then. It’s not something she’s [Kent] just put in there for the hell of it.” And she’s right. As long as the film is clear up front about its content, and provides the relevant trigger warnings (which it does), then it shouldn’t be prevented from telling an important story in a realistic manner. In fact, Franciosi has even spoken of being thanked by sexual abuse survivors who’ve seen the movie. They felt “understood”, she revealed.
To be clear, The Nightingale is much more than the scene it has been making headlines for. As soon as that part of the move is over, it morphs into something totally different. Devastated by what has happened, Clare is overcome by grief, self-pity and finally overwhelming fury. She resolves to track down the offending officer, Hawkins (Sam Claflin), and kill him – with the help of a local guide, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), who directs her through the dangerous Tasmanian wilderness. Only then, she thinks, will she be able to come to terms with her loss.
Less of a traumatic, Oscar-baiting drama like Room, The Nightingale resists the temptation to become a cliched Hollywood weepie. Instead, Kent taps into a rich vein of palpable rage to tell an affecting tale about imperialism, state-sanctioned genocide and unimaginable heartbreak. She’s aided by a mesmeric performance from Franciosi (Game Of Thrones), whose blank, grief-numbed demeanour is punctuated by terrible flashes of anger, while Claflin, who plays Clare’s tormentor Hawkins, is equally impressive. Elsewhere, Damon Herriman (Charles Manson in Mindhunter) shines in yet another supporting role as a lowly, brainless private, encouraged to indulge in his most base urges.
Narratively fearless and visually stunning, The Nightingale might disappoint those hoping for another creepy fright-fest like The Babadook. Although subjectively speaking, this may be the more accomplished work. As in her debut, Kent creates an underlying current of tension, forcing the viewer onto the edge of their seat and never letting them move. But here, she taps into real world issues, relating the terror to things we hear about constantly on TV and in the news. Of course, the film will undoubtedly prove too much for some, but if you can make it past the first excruciating 30 minutes, there’s a cinematic gem to be discovered.
- Director: Jennifer Kent
- Starring: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Damon Herriman
- Release Date: 29 November 2019