There are a number of brutally remorseless moments of physical violence in Jennifer Kent’s second feature film “The Nightingale”, which won the Special Jury Prize when it was shown at the Venice Film Festival in last year. As a matter of fact, I cringed and flinched a lot as watching the film, and I was not so surprised to learn later that some audiences were quite repulsed by these gut-wrenching moments in the movie.
The story of the film is set in Tasmania, Australia in 1825, when the region was going through a violent conflict between British colonists and Aboriginal Australians. The heroine of the movie, a young Irish woman named Clare Carroll (Aisling Franciosi), has been held as a convict by a British military unit led by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), but, at least, she is allowed to led a family life with her husband and their little baby while working as a servant in the unit, and she has been waiting for the day when she and her family are permitted to leave the unit and become totally free.
However, Hawkins still does not write a letter of recommendation for Clare and her husband, and it does not take much time for us to see how much this loathsome guy enjoys having her under his power. At one point, he has her sing a song in front of his soldiers, and his soldiers do not hesitate at all to show their rude and vulgar sides while she tries to sing as well as possible.
Meanwhile, Hawkins has aspired to be promoted to captaincy, but, to his exasperation and frustration, his superior does not approve much of what has been going on under Hawkins’ command, and that eventually leads to a repulsively violent moment between Hawkins and Clare when they happen to be together in his private place. While austerely restricting itself from any possibility of sensationalization and eroticization, the movie does not pull any punch at all during this scene, and, in fact, it is so strong that I actually found myself concerned about the welfare of the two performers in the scene.
And that is just the beginning. Claire’s husband, who has been desperate and frustrated as much as her, decides to take care of their matter of freedom for himself, but his decision only results in more anger and spite from Hawkins, and Hawkins and his two soldiers subsequently come into Claire and her husband’s shabby residence. When they leave, Claire, who was brutally raped again, is utterly devastated by her irreversible personal loss, and it looks like there is not anything she can do about that mainly because of her current social status.
After belatedly learning that Hawkins already left for a distant town along with his two soldiers and several other guys including an old Aboriginal Australian tracker, Claire becomes quite determined to catch up with Hawkins for her vengeance, but she also needs a tracker to guide her along a perilous route to the town in question, so she comes to a young Aboriginal Australian named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). Although he is not particularly willing to get hired by Claire, Billy eventually makes a deal with her, and they soon take their first steps into the wilderness full of possible dangers.
Because of their mutual distrust fueled by racial prejudice and resentment, Claire and Billy, whose real name is Mangala (It means ‘blackbird’ in his native language, by the way), do not get along that well with each other, but then, as going through several ups and downs of their journey, they come to depend on each other a lot as finding some common ground between them. While she does not say much about her past, it is clear that Claire was mistreated and disregarded many times due to her gender and social status before being sent to Australia. In case of Mangala, he often talks about how much he has suffered since he was taken away from his tribe and family, and he comes to sympathize with Claire more than expected as sharing their similar hatred toward British people.
In the meantime, the movie also focuses on Hawkins and his men’s increasingly problematic journey, and we are served with a series of unpleasant moments to strike us quite hard as they continue to show more of their ugly and deplorable sides. There is a horrific scene where a certain minor character is cruelly raped just for happening to come across one of Hawkins’ two soldiers, and then there is also a disturbing subplot involved with a young boy who lets himself influenced by the toxic masculinity of Hawkins and his men.
I understand that these and many other violent in the film are intended to reflect the heartless evil and savagery of the colonialism during the 19th century, and I also appreciate that Kent actually consulted a lot with Tasmanian Aboriginal elders for the accurate and realistic depiction of that dark, violent era in the past in addition to having psychiatrists on the set during the shooting of many brutal moments in the film, but, unfortunately, Kent’s screenplay stumbles and meanders especially during its last act as often hampered by its thin characterization and weak storytelling. Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr, who received the Marcello Mastroinanni Award at the Venice Festival for his debut performance in here in this film, are solid in their tense interactions throughout the film, but the movie often hesitates to go further with their characters while merely scratching the surface of its historical subjects, and I am not sure whether the finale works as well as planned by Kent’s screenplay.
In conclusion, “The Nightingale” is less impressive compared to Kent’s previous film “The Babadook” (2014), a spooky and intense horror film which I chose as one of the best films of 2014. Although the movie shows us that Kent is indeed a talented filmmaker knows one or two things about how to generate genuine emotional intensity to jolt and shock us, I still cannot help but feel that it could be more focused and effective, but I do not think I will easily forget how much I was disturbed and horrified by what I saw from this intense but ultimately flawed work.