Who could’ve guessed the same director as The Babadook (2014) would direct a very violent, disturbing revenge story? In fact, The Nightingale – now available on Hulu – is the complete opposite of Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut: while The Babadook was an intimate, contained story about grief and depression, The Nightingale is a much more literal and brutal period piece that works on a larger scale.
Set in the early 1800s, this film follows two intertwined revenge stories: on one hand, there’s 21-year-old Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict who chases a British officer and his crew in the middle of Tasmania. On the other, she needs the help of an Aborigine tracker named Billy, who also suffered from a severe trauma from his own violent past. Even though the racial differences are a huge obstacle in that context, the two of them need to cooperate in order to fulfil their vengeful purposes.
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After its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 2018, The Nightingale had troubles with its distribution for nearly one year, until it got a limited theatrical release in the States and, later, was picked up by IFC Midnight and Hulu. This is likely due to the extremely graphic and unflinching content of the film, which received highly positive reviews but was considered really hard to sell.
I can definitely see why. The Nightingale doesn’t hold any punches from the very beginning, with the first act being one of the most intense openings for a movie I’ve ever witnessed. The main character, Clare, goes through hell at the beginning of the film. Her husband and baby daughter are taken away from her in the most disturbing, unapologetic way you can imagine, with scenes most filmmakers wouldn’t even dare writing. Following the story from her perspective, and largely due to Franciosi’s marvellous performance, the audience feels the pain and abuse this poor woman is going through, making The Nightingale truly engaging and hard-hitting.
At times, The Nightingale felt like it was directed by the likes of Robert Eggers, Gaspar Noe’ or Michael Haneke, due to the combination of disturbing content and spotless visuals. In fact, this picture is a technical achievement in every way, from the unbelievably perfect audio quality to the spotless use of natural lights to the expert camera work.
The Nightingale isn’t just flawless in its presentation – as in, the movie features no technical mistakes – but every visual choice is done to enhance either the story or its strong, relatable characters. The constant sensation of danger and urgency that surrounds Clare and Billy, deep in the wilderness at the mercy of convicts and soldiers alike, enhanced by phenomenal, highly engrossing sound design as well as Kent’s choice to film The Nightingale in the confines of the 4:3 aspect ratio. This particular decision to rely on an aspect ratio that was typical for classic western and old TV movies not only gives the impression you’re watching a movie from another era, but it also provides a claustrophobic vibe the main characters must have experienced themselves within the story.
Unlike the vast majority of rape and revenge stories, The Nightingale doesn’t win sympathy from the audience by simply showing the horrifying acts of violence that occur to our main characters. In fact, the movie builds Billy and Clare as well-rounded, compelling leads you can’t help but feel for: a key element to achieve that is the sense of urgency in Clare’s revenge story. Her character doesn’t waste time planning her vengeance: she jumps on a horse and, in a few violently cut and edited sequences, she’s already riding towards the people who wronged her. Billy, on the other hand, has silenced his rage towards “the whitefella” that killed everyone he loved and took over his country. He’s been defeated and now only wants to get buy and avoid further danger: however, the unlikely friendship with Clare makes him realise something needs to be done on his part as well.
Due to Clare and Billy teaming up, The Nightingale adds another layer to the already compelling revenge plot by creating a connective tissue between the personal horrors of the main characters and the large-scale horrors performed by the English on Billy’s native country.
There is, however, another main character that needs to be assessed: Lieutenant Hawkins, the man who’s responsible for Clare’s suffering, is probably the most vile and threatening villain in any horror film that came out in 2019. Sam Claflin brings an especially brutal and unflinching form of evil to the screen playing the leader of a group of soldiers: his determination to rise in the ranks makes him reckless to the point of insanity; his frustration makes him extremely dangerous towards the weak, especially women, kids and Aborigine people.
The Nightingale is a raw, brutally honest depiction of the horrors of a specific era as much as it is the small-scale violent story of an individual who’s been deprived of everything she had. There’s a lot to chew on in this fantastic and unique film, which I believe would benefit from multiple viewings – just like The Babadook, though for different reasons.
Nonetheless, this film suffers from a few issues in the third act, during the last 30/40 minutes of runtime. The biggest problem with the last part of The Nightingale is the pacing: a few scenes are emotionally powerful and elongated, whereas others are bloody, violent and quick. This dichotomy gives quite a jarring feeling to the ending of the movie, which is unfortunately enhanced by the presence of two moments (one in a store and one in the house of two old people) that feel completely detached from the rest of the movie. The Nightingale also features one too many campfire sequences that feel repetitive, even though they’re used for character development: a different setting or camera-work during those sequences would’ve made them feel more fresh and unique.
That said, The Nightingale is a very unique, perfectly executed on a technical level revenge story with a lot to say on women’s condition, colonisation and, in general, a very particular time and place in history. It’s one of my favourite movies of the year, no doubt. If you look for a brutal tale of revenge with compelling characters and great visuals, The Nightingale is the best film you can look for.
The Nightingale 8/10
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