Jennifer Kent’s sophomore feature–her last film was the terrifically taught “Babadook”– opens with a close-up. If you look closely, it’s a face on the verge of giving up. The time is the 19th century. The place is Tasmania. The heroine, Clare (Aisling Francioisi), is lying in bed with her baby; her eyes swollen and her lips cracked. She’s about to go on stage to perform a catchy tune for the English soldiers. She sings–her voice as smooth as a crackling fire–an Irish jig now associated with revolutions. Fittingly, Kent’s latest film is revolutionary. A powerful drama about freedom and hard-won-female-power, “The Nightingale” serves as the ultimate middle finger to centuries of racism and sexism.
It also gives us the ultimate trailblazer. “Trailblazer” is the term you have heard a zillion times since the Oscars in 2018, but it perfectly describes Clare. An Irish convict sentenced to Van Diemen’s Land, Clare is enslaved by a British soldier who has mistaken Diemen’s Land for Demon’s Land (Sam Clafin). Her daily routine is to clean, sing and to be beaten and raped, beaten and raped, beaten and raped. This doesn’t bode well for her loving husband, Aiden (Michael Sheasby); just as it doesn’t bode well for audiences with a weak stomach for violence. If revenge is a dish best served cold, this one is served with a side of dry ice.
I felt like I needed a shower after making it through the first act. Hawkins, the British soldier, and his fellow goons are the spitting image of colonialism. They believe the world belongs to them. That applies to everything in it and extends to Clare. In a scene that Douglas Sirk wouldn’t even dramatize; her husband and baby are brutally murdered as she is being raped. It’s hard on the eyes–and even harder on the ears– but it justifies her pursuit for justice.
The following two acts take us down a familiar revenge path into a darkness all its own. As Hawkins and his troupe travel back to the city “Aguirre, The Wrath of Misogyny” style, Clare follows with an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). In the hands of less skilled performers these two might have just been a mismatched pair. But Kent and her actors bring a warmth to the friendship. They slowly realize that their situations aren’t all that different– women are raped and blacks are hanged in 19th century England. The camera watches as they investigate each other. Their mouths saying nothing; their faces saying everything. “Times are changing” we are told. Revolution is in the air.
Everything in this world is weighing them down: the grey skies are closing in; the tree branches take the shape of knifes; the birds mock them with their songs of freedom. But Clare and Billy march onward. There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, right? In this film violence doesn’t payoff. As Clare gets her bloody revenge, her face reflects sorrow not release. (Don’t expect a Tarantino payoff). Kent’s greatest pleasure is exploring the complexities of history and human personality. The way scars last. The way catharsis comes from within.
It’s not a new message–not even for Kent. “The Babadook” was about a mother’s fear to raise her son, and how she learns to cope with that fear. “The Nightingale” is about Clare coping with an abusive past, and how she can deal with the present. Still, this one is more composed. Her command for actors and atmosphere heightened. Working with Radek Ladczuk, and shot in Academic ratio, the two have created a waking nightmare that is as unforgettable as it is troubling. Then again, the trouble is the point. The bloodshed is needed because the bloodshed really happened. Would you rather they dumb down the violence for it to appeal to a wider audience?
Some might. I wouldn’t. Clare’s journey toward freedom is exceptional due to her exceptionally hellish past (and an Oscar-worthy turn from Francioisi). Clare has the nickname nightingale. Billy has the nickname blackbird. They got their nicknames for their beautiful voices. Yet, by the end those nicknames resemble something more. This is seen in the final closeup of Clare. If you look closely, it’s the face of empowerment.