The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent, 2018) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Clare is a young woman without much of a future. It’s the early 19thcentury in Australia, a continent still being conquered by the Europeans, the indigenous population hunted and killed at will to make way for the so-called civilization of white invaders. Clare, an Irish convict just freed after a lengthy sentence, who is also a new mother struggling to build a life for herself, husband and child, is not quite as free as she would like, forced to serve an abusive boss in British Lieutenant Hawkins. His privileges include, as he sees it, taking whatever liberties he might like with Clare, but when Aidan, her spouse, finally confronts Hawkins, the military man tragically takes righteous retaliation too far, leaving Clare for dead and with nothing left to lose. What starts out as a grim character study quickly becomes even bleaker as Clare pursues Hawkins and his men across the wild Australian forest, seeking vengeance in the company of an Aboriginal man, Billy, whose own history is no less dismal. As a metaphor for the ravages of colonial butchery, The Nightingale is as powerful as it is somber.
As Clare, Aisling Franciosi (Katie on BBC/Netflix’s The Fall) is ferocious, holding our attention throughout with her bitterness and rage. She may sing like a lovely bird (hence the title), but beware her singlemindedness of purpose. Baykali Ganambarr, as Billy, perfectly encapsulates the warring tensions of apathy and anger felt by someone whose land and people are being violently, relentlessly destroyed. Sam Claflin (My Cousin Rachel) also shines as Hawkins, his boyish good looks in unsettling counterpoint to his psychopathy. Though Clare and Billy make natural allies, their mutual suspicion the one for the other takes a while to mellow. Clare comes to the relationship with more than a vestige of European racism and fear, and Billy has good reason to believe that she would just as soon kill him, too. But time and experience bring them closer, even as it also eliminates their options.
If The Nightingale, in its description, seems brutal, that’s because it is. This is no gentle fairytale about a wrong righted. Rather, the plot – gruesome and merciless – is writer/director Jennifer Kent’s vehicle to plunge the viewer into the genocide of the recent past. There is no happy end and no way out. Even in revenge, with more blood shed in an ostensibly just cause, the tragedy of Australia, raped and pillaged for the glory of its attackers, cannot be undone. Kent’s previous (first) feature, The Babadook, was a frightening horror film about a mother fighting off a demon in her home. As scary as that debut may have been, here the horror terrifies even more, for it lives on today, the unpunished sins of yesteryear a reminder that evil often wins. Difficult to watch, The Nightingale nevertheless deserves to be seen, though many of its depictions of killing and sexual assault will be too much for some viewers. If you can stomach the secondary trauma, however, it’s well worth it for the stark truths revealed.