Film Review | The Nightingale: Systemic horror that chills to the bone

Brutal to a near-fault, Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook is nonetheless a thrilling and justifiably enraged exploration of one of the darkest chapters of Australia’s past

All the trigger warnings. All of them. Despite already having made a name for herself in the horror genre with her directorial debut feature The Babadook (2014), Australian actress-turned-director Jennifer Kent now returns to the big screens with a feature that may not explicitly advertise itself as emerging from that generic fold, but whose horrors are arguably all the more affecting for containing no whiff of supernatural evil. Perhaps the one element that transfers over from the earlier film is Kent’s commitment to depicting feminine grief and its close cousin: justified rage.

So from a suburban home in present-day Australia where a single mother’s home is stalked by the presence of a top-hatted demon we move to that country a century earlier, specifically Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) in 1825, as the ‘Black War’ rages on, with colonial troops on the warpath to exterminate and ‘civilise’ the indigenous population. But our entry point into this fraught landscape is Claire Carroll (Aisling Franciosi), an indentured convict who has married and had a child in captivity. Plying the leering visiting troops night in and night out with her beautiful singing voice, she is dubbed a ‘nightingale’ by the officer presiding over her case, the sadistic Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who refuses to write a letter that will grant her freedom, even if it is three months overdue.

As Claire’s indignation bubbles to the surface, her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) attempts to force the issue with her superiors… to devastating results. Stripped of everything she’s ever held dear, Claire embarks on a mission of revenge, picking up the Aboriginal tracker ‘Billy’ Mangana (Baykali Ganambarr) along the way.

That something akin to a partnership of equals develops between the two on this long (perhaps slightly overlong) journey is one of the only rays of light in an otherwise bleak, though nonetheless entirely accomplished, second feature from this most promising of international film-makers.

There is no way of getting around the stomach-turning cruelty that characterises the film’s opening minutes, and those with sensitive constitutions can consider themselves duly warned. Even in a sparsely populated local theatre screening, the gasps and loud groans were audible, a testament both to the film’s refusal to gloss over the horrors of colonial Australia, as well as Kent’s ability to rise from the dross of the bulk of contemporary cinematic offerings to give us something truly jolting.

Handled by lesser hands keen to capitalise on the titillation of such scenes, the film would scan as very little other than yet another entry in the always-suspect ‘rape revenge’ sub-genre of horror, where cruelty is repaid with equivalent cruelty and we’re all allowed to come back home energised by a debased version of cinematic catharsis. Kent, however, lingers on the scenes of rape and murder in a way that doesn’t seek to satisfy the yearnings of our reptilian brain, and which always privileges the victim’s point of view. Not ‘fun’ by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly true to its mission to depict the power abuses at the centre of the colonial project.

Beyond the scenes themselves, the wider story world of the script also displays a similar nuance. In a further undercutting exercise of the exploitative tropes that may have otherwise wormed their way in, the script, also penned by Kent, is careful to show how pretty much all of the characters – yes, including the monstrous officers – are subject to power structures that oppress them. The victim status of Billy and his indigenous colleague is never in any doubt, and Claire is only one rung up in that ranking, albeit a significant one.

But just like Claire is frustrated by Hawkins’ arbitrary refusal to grant her freedom, so Hawkins is made to languish in a backwater outpost by his superiors, two years beyond an agreed-upon promotion elsewhere. Exactly none of this justifies his horrendous actions throughout the film, of course, but such a detail hammers home just how careful Kent is to move away from reliable stereotypes and generic oversimplifications. The horror is built into the system, and no amount of moral hand-wringing and wishful-thinking revenge fantasies will make any of it go away.

And while there is an unforgiving lack of obfuscation in the way poor Claire’s story pans out, the otherwise beautifully crafted film does offer some visual respite from time to time, with deft camerawork from cinematographer Radek Ladczuk allowing us to soak in the sublime pleasures of the natural landscape of a re-created 19th century Tasmania, with Kent, however, keen to remind us of its treacherousness at every turn. And while the PTSD nightmares Claire is afflicted with do recall similar psychological hauntings in The Babadook, the film also allows itself to bend established reality to lend some credence to Aboriginal belief systems, peppering Claire and Billy’s picaresque journey with avian helpers that evoke both the titular animal and Billy’s own talismanic blackbird.

Where the film falters slightly is where Kent’s ego appears to gain the better hand – there is a fine line between brutally honest and just plain brutal, one that she does overstep from time to time, and in an apparent desire to craft her own take on the rambling, ‘epic’ Western she does allow the running time to run amok and deflate some steam off its third act in the process.

But The Nightingale remains an undeniably powerful piece of contemporary cinema: thrilling, urgent and sadly ever-relevant.

The verdict

Shockingly harrowing but never exploitative, Jennifer Kent’s sophomore feature is an unflinching look at the atrocities of the British colonial project in Australia, and its layered and unflinching script and considerably sensitive directorial approach is what snatches it safe from the jaws of titillation and exploitation.

The Nightingale will be screening at Spazju Kreattiv Cinema, Valletta on January 25 (8.30pm), January 30 (7.30pm) and February 2 (8.30pm)