The Nightingale

August 20, 2019

Australian, Review, Theatrical, This Week 2 Comments

… a work of conviction and has startling moments and performances.

The Nightingale

Julian Wood
Year: 2019
Rating: MA
Director: Jennifer Kent

Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Sam Claflin, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood

Distributor: Transmission
Released: August 29, 2019
Running Time: 136 minutes
Worth: $15.00

FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth

… a work of conviction and has startling moments and performances.

The impact on the Tasmanian Aboriginal population by the arrival of the British was genocidal. Whether this was part of the intention is still a matter of fierce debate of course. What is certain is that Van Diemen’s land in the late 18th century was one hellish place.

Director Jennifer Kent (who made the acclaimed horror pic The Babadook) doesn’t spare us the raw details. In fact, she somewhat overeggs it to an extent that some will find it wearisome as well as repugnant. Still, the film is clearly a work of conviction and has startling moments and performances.

At the centre of the story is Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a feisty young Irish lass with a voice as sweet as a nightingale, who is eking out an existence with her husband and their young child. This is a penal colony whose rough inhabitants are pinned down by the brutal regime of the English soldiers. As an Irish woman, Clare feels the old enmity and resentment of the English and the feelings of corrupt garrison commander Hawkins (Sam Claflin) is clearly mutual. The most oppressed of all are the original inhabitants, the Aboriginal people who are rounded up for a bounty or coerced into being trackers to navigate for the whites when they enter the wilderness interior.

Having established the harshness of the world, the film’s drama kicks off when Hawkins tries to exert his ‘rights’ to take/rape Clare. This is a scene that will numb some audiences. After that, Clare turns into an exterminating angel and the rest of the film is the working through of her revenge.

As noted, Jennifer Kent feels the necessity to show us how arbitrary and cruel this land would have been, and to stoke our vicarious desire for Clare’s actions. Franciosi (briefly in Game of Thrones) gives a fine performance and she brings inner strength to her pivotal role. Late in the film, she teams up through necessity with escaped Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) – who has seen his tribe annihilated. This is one of the few elements that comes off contrived, and potentially problematic coming from a non-Aboriginal filmmaker.

The rest of the cast all throw themselves into the historical mayhem with good turns from Damon Herriman as the bullying and bullied subaltern soldier. The revelation though is Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games, Me Before You) as the irredeemably evil Hawkins. He is more well known for his romantic roles but here he relishes the opportunity to show what a range he truly has an actor. His cruelty is what gives the film much of its explosive force.


  1. Nicky

    I agree with the description – ‘mostly Wearisome and repugnant’
    A very worthy Australian story – the treatment of Irish convicts and Indigenous Tasmanians, but told with under-developed characters; either evil psychopaths or virtuous victims. Heavy handed, earnest and simplistic. An overly long & repulsive rape/child murder scene dominates the film.
    Baykali Ganambar is a talent to watch though – a luminous performance.

  2. Garry Williams

    Another spineless, superficial review of this ugly and problematic film. The violence is totally gratuitous (deliberately so), the anti-revenge statement clumsy and half-baked, the gender politics highly troubling and it’s a squandered opportunity to address the very real genocide of Aboriginal people during early white settlement. It’s full of unmotivated actions by characters, and many scenes play out implausibly – for example when the cartoonishly evil Lieutenant executes an Aboriginal woman in front of some Aboriginal men carrying spears, none of the men throw their spear at him – the film is that dumb. Clare’s turning away from the path of revenge is presented as noble but it’s a hugely disempowering message for women, both for suggesting that justice is something best left to men, as well as, from a pratical point of view, allowing the villains to go on raping and killing with impunity. And the conflating of this Irish woman’s personal suffering with the wider atrocities inflicted on the indigenous population does both a disservice. Badly written and badly directed. Critics are not being honest about this film’s many obvious flaws.

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