Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent blew horror fans away with her directorial debut, The Babadook. Consider it no small feat that her first feature-length effort was one of the best horror movies of last decade. While she waited a few years, Kent’s anticipated follow-up, The Nightingale, was immediately divisive upon its release. Set amidst the historical backdrop of the Black War in Van Diemen’s Land (now known as Tasmania), critics alternately praised and decried the racial and sexual violent in Kent’s revenge story. Notwithstanding the controversy, critics were overwhelmingly impressed with The Nightingale.
In 1825 Tasmania, young Irish convict Claire lives a life of servitude under a cruel British officer, Lieutenant Hawkins. Along with her husband and infant child, Claire waits for the day she is released to live her own life. But after an argument between Claire’s husband, Aidan, and Hawkins, British soldiers murder Claire’s family and leave her brutalized. Somehow Claire survives her assault and, along with a reluctant Aboriginal tracker, Billy, hunts Lieutenant Hawkins across the Tasmanian wilderness.
The Nightingale a Brutal and Heartbreaking Window Into Colonial Violence
Not a horror movie and perhaps not a revenge movie, The Nightingale distances itself from the exploitation fare of a Tarantino or Roth. Keep in mind, Kent’s story of the violence inherent in colonization is unflinching in its depiction of the horrors visited upon Indigenous peoples and women. Several scenes of sexual violence – captured with an almost documentary-like approach eschewing objectification – show up across the movie. These are absolutely uncomfortable scenes. Not all viewers will be able to watch it. And Kent bludgeons the audience with horrific images of racial violence. As mentioned above, Kent approaches these scenes in a minimalist way. There’s no sharp editing, dramatic music score, or fancy camera work to remind audiences that it’s just a movie. Instead, Kent forces you to see the violence for all its ugliness.
…Kent’s story of the violence inherent in colonization is unflinching in its depiction of the horrors visited upon Indigenous peoples and women.
In sharp contrast to its content, The Nightingale is a beautifully shot movie. Several stunning images of the Australian landscape serve as a reminder to what was taken from Indigenous peoples. Additionally, Kent’s story detours from typical revenge movie tropes. Much of The Nightingale focuses on the relationship between Irish convict Claire and her Indigenous tracker, Billy. The complex relationship reminds you that gender was just one source for oppression. That is, Claire’s mistrust of Billy betrays some hostility and mistrust of her own. Over the course of the movie, their growing friendship offers juxtaposes with the violence. As the movie ends, The Nightingale indicts colonialism while offering some hope.
Kent Weaves Some Effective Suspense With Stunning Lead Performances
Though it’s not a horror movie, Kent knows a thing or two about suspense and horror imagery. Not surprisingly then, Kent fills those moments building up to violence with an abundance of tension. In particular, The Nightingale’s dream sequences are haunting. Kent gives these bits a feeling of quiet unease. One of the dream sequences is dizzying in its descent into terror. Yet what’s most impressive with these aspects is the restraint Kent shows in her method. Never does Kent allow these scenes to spiral into full horror movie territory. She maintains a consistent tone throughout the movie.
And while Baykali Ganambarr is a newcomer, he should blow audiences away with his performance.
Audiences will likely be unfamiliar with The Nightingale’s principal protagonists. Both actors deliver astounding performances. As Claire, Aisling Franciosi displays an impressive range of emotions. From naive innocence to rage to sad hope, Franciosi turns Claire into a complex, relatable character. And while Baykali Ganambarr is a newcomer, he should blow audiences away with his performance. Kent’s script ensures ‘Billy’ is not a supporting character and, in turn, Ganambarr brings the dignity of Indigenous peoples, even under oppression, to life. The friendship between the characters elevates the movie beyond just a revenge story. On the other side of the spectrum, Sam Claflin earns his villain status. He couldn’t be any further removed from The Hunger Games’ Finnick Odair. But as Lieutenant Hawkins, Claflin puts an ugly face on the violence of colonialism.
The Nightingale Confirms Jennifer Kent as a Premier Filmmaker
The Nightingale is as necessary a story as it is brutally difficult to watch. Undoubtedly, the movie’s explicit racial and sexual violence will divide audiences. Did The Nightingale need to show so much of this ugliness? While some critics will disagree, others will point out that Kent’s depiction of very real historical (and present) violent colonization necessitated such an unflinching treatment. Not everyone will be able to watch the movie. Regardless The Nightingale confirms that Jennifer Kent is a premier filmmaker. It’s an uncompromising and beautifully shot movie. And in spite of its ugly violence, Kent’s story finds some hope in the emotional bonds shared by its main characters by the movie’s conclusion. It’s also another illustration of the importance of inclusive storytelling in movies.