Title: The Nightingale
Describe This Movie In One Count of Monte Cristo Quote:
BARON FRANZ d'ÉPINAY: Hatred is blind, rage carries you away; and he who pours out vengeance runs the risk of tasting a bitter draught.
Brief Plot Synopsis: It's a bitter pill / I swallow here
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: 4 Tasmanian devils out of 5.
Tagline: "Her song will not be silenced."
Better Tagline: "We don't want the Irish!"
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict finishing her sentence as a servant while living with her husband and baby in 1825 Van Diemen's Land (modern day Tasmania). That is, until they run afoul of a British Army lieutenant named Hawkins (Sam Claflin) and his men, whose barbaric acts drive Clare to seek revenge. When her fellow countrymen fail to step up, she's forced to employ the services of Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal tracker who views her with the same suspicion as he does all white people.
"Critical" Analysis: Jennifer Kent made a hell of a splash with her 2014 directorial debut, The Babadook. It was a horror movie, true, but a cererbal one that drew praise for exploring the mother-son dynamic in the wake of tragedy (in addition to being immensely creepy). It therefore follows that people would be excited for her sophomore attempt.
The Nightingale has certainly generated publicity, not all of it favorable, with festival screenings marked by dozens of walkouts. Many were reportedly angered and/or disturbed by the stark depictions of violence. It's a rough watch, to be sure, but rewards the viewer who makes an effort to stick it out.
The film finds Kent eschewing her first movie's largely psychological horror for frank brutality in order to convey the harsh realities of life under British colonial rule. Clare and Billy may initially have to contend with a) her racism, and b) his reluctance to take orders from a woman, but both are united by the truth so eloquently voiced by Billy: "White fellow way is shit way."
How well this would hold together without Franciosi? Not very. Clare is subjected to unspeakable atrocities (though not uncommon ones, as is made depressingly clear), and Franciosi makes you feel her agony, despair, and — finally — rage. It's a devastating performance, and one that seems fated to follow Toni Collette's in the category of actors in horror movies ignored during awards season. Ganambarr also holds his own, and provides the movie's fleeting moments of humor through wry asides.
It's Claflin who almost steals the show, however, and that feels really weird to say. He's skilled enough to almost fool you into feeling sympathy for his plight. In a way, you find yourself thinking: is he too a victim of circumstance, in his way as much a prisoner as Clare and Billy?
Ha ha, no. He's an utter psychopath. Had you going there for a minute.
Kent consummately shows us how Clare's thirst for retribution, while echoing Hawkins' behavior, can't possibly compete with the institutional cruelty that backs him. Indeed, the young lieutenant's biggest sin in the eyes of his superiors is his inability to keep his transgressions private. Clare and Billy's victories, cathartic as they occasionally are, can't overcome the disheartening reality that none of it ultimately matters.
There's no denying The Nightingale is a difficult watch. People are going to argue up and down about whether the extremes Kent goes to were really needed, but her film is evocative of other, similarly themed movies like The Searchers or Come and See in its depiction of vengeance's depressingly widening gyre. Unfortunately, sometimes the cruelty is necessary.