Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Sam Claflin, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood
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…an important Australian movie that is very much not going to be for everyone.
With 2014’s The Babadook, director Jennifer Kent crafted a superbly realised allegorical horror movie that delivered genuine scares and quality drama. While typically underperforming at the Australian box office (a story all too familiar for homegrown content), it nonetheless did well in overseas territories and is frequently referenced in popular culture. Hell, it even spawned a queer-friendly meme that casts the titular baddie as a gay icon.
In terms of a follow up film, Kent could pretty much write her own ticket, and cinemagoers were curious as to where this superb director might go next. The Nightingale answers that question and while it’s a quality film, crikey, it’s unlikely to spawn any memes.
The Nightingale tells the grim tale of Irish convict, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), who lives in Tasmania in 1825. Clare wants nothing more than to be free with her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and baby. However, British officer and manipulative sociopath, Hawkins (Sam Claflin) has other ideas, and one dark night he murders Aidan and the baby and rapes Clare and then leaves her for dead. Clare, injured but alive and incandescent with rage, enlists the services of Aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), and heads off into the bush to take her revenge.
As you can probably gather from the above description, The Nightingale is a dark and nasty film. However, as audiences at various film festivals have discovered, even with your loins girded you may not be prepared for just how disturbing things get. Put simply, The Nightingale is extreme cinema, every bit as horrifying and impactful as Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible or Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave. The difference here is that Kent is attempting to portray a semi-realistic picture of one of Australia’s most shameful periods, the attempted genocide of the indigenous people, and expose the very real horrors of colonialism in a brutal, unflinching fashion.
The resulting film is a ferocious and unrelenting piece, and while the violence and rape are never gratuitous per se, it’s certainly going to test the nerves of cinemagoers. In terms of performances, the movie absolutely belongs to Franciosi and Ganambarr, the unlikely pair soon becoming friends as they each empathise with the suffering colonialism has brought the other. Slightly less successful is Sam Claflin, whose character is written so over-the-top evil he threatens to become a caricature at times. Kent’s direction is assured as always, this time shooting in 4:3 aspect ratio, with every frame dripping with atmosphere and darkness. Her script, however, is a little less deft, with the ultimate message feeling a tad contradictory in some of the final moments.
Ultimately, The Nightingale is a bold and savage film, dealing with issues that haven’t been explored in such an incendiary fashion since Fred Schepisi’s notorious The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978). Boasting strong performances and superb direction, this is an important Australian movie that is very much not going to be for everyone. If, however, you can handle this dark trip back into Tasmania’s bloody history, it’s a journey very much worth taking.