1825, Tasmania. Considered the most brutal of the British colonies in Australia, the island was regarded throughout the western world as ‘hell on Earth’, and as Jennifer Kent’s latest feature makes clear, for the convict women exited there and the aborigines forced violently from their land, that title is surely apt. The Nightingale tells the story of Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict indentured to British soldier Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). After a brutal attack that leaves her family dead, Clare sets off through the wilderness in pursuit of her revenge. Enlisting the help of aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) as her guide, she begins a journey that only takes her further into the violence at the heart of colonial rule.
Kent’s second feature after 2014’s acclaimed horror The Babadook, The Nightingale makes it clear that she is a formidable directorial talent. In Nightingale she expertly captures both the beauty and the harshness of the unforgiving Tasmanian landscape; when Clare is at her most vulnerable, lost and alone in the forest, Kent reduces her to a tiny figure in a frame dominated by almost impossibly large trees and ferns that make her look childlike in size. She explores the same contradictions in her characters, with moments of gentleness and love interspersed between seemingly constant episodes of cruelty and callousness. Make no mistake: while this film is no horror, the violence in it is nonetheless truly horrific; necessarily so, as it is a film centred around the nature of violence and its aftermath. It is not easy to watch, but neither should it be – as Kent acknowledges, to downplay or sanitise the violence would be an insult to those who suffered and died under colonialism. It would also play into the hands of those who, even today, claim British imperialism as a great moment in history and a point of pride for the country and its descendants.
The brutality gives the story an intensity that demands a lot from its actors, but not one of them falls short. As Clare, Aisling Franciosi (Game of Thrones, The Fall) is a woman turned feral from trauma and loss, every scene seething with the palpable mix of anguish and rage that consumes her. It’s a very emotional role, and she handles it with a rawness that is utterly convincing. First-time actor Baykali Ganambarr gives a layered performance as perhaps the film’s most likeable character, showing the undeniable warmth beneath Billy’s anger and loss. The relationship between the two travellers is effective in its depiction of their mutual distrust and its gradual development towards understanding and friendship. Despite the audience being asked to sympathise with Clare, Kent does not shy away from showing how the colony’s white convicts held the same vicious racial prejudices as the soldiers. Not only is this believable, but it adds resonance to the way their relationship represents oppressed peoples finding commonality in a system designed to pit them against one another.
Playing the detestable Lieutenant Hawkins, Sam Claflin continues a villainous streak he began playing fascist leader Oswald Mosley in the latest series of Peaky Blinders. It’s not hard to see why, as both performances are undeniably among his best. Hawkins is so horrifying primarily because he is so believable; he is unhinged in a way only men in power are allowed to be, hiding his capacity for extreme violence under a thin veneer of respectability. Whether engaging in disturbing acts of cruelty or sucking up to his superiors in hopes of a promotion, Claflin is note-perfect, delivering a performance as captivating as it is chilling. Damon Herriman, on a similar villainous streak (the man has played Charles Manson twice), is once again being perfectly despicable as Sergeant Ruse.
With its expert direction, powerful themes and impeccable performances, the one thing that really lets The Nightingale down is its script’s tendency to meander, especially in the latter half. The to-ing and fro-ing as Clare and Billy meet the soldiers, part, then meet again, part again… ends the forward motion that has propelled the story thus far, and lessens considerably the tension that has been built up around the reunion of the avenging Clare and the man responsible for all her suffering. Their meeting should be the climax of the tale, one powerful confrontation to conclude her emotional journey. Instead, we get a series of partial-climaxes, some more effective than others, but none reaching the powerful ending a film of this ambition requires.
While the looseness of the script in its later moments leaves the film as a whole feeling over-long and rambling, its worst effects are felt in the emotional arc of its main character. The back and forth of the plot has Clare full of murderous vengeance one moment, then unwilling to hold a gun the next. While it would not be fair to criticise Kent for taking a less obvious route than simply having her protagonist achieve her goal without complication, Clare’s last-minute indecision seems to come from nowhere. Rather than being struck by terror at the sight of her abuser, or having a change of heart about the righteousness of violent revenge, Clare essentially chickens out of confronting Hawkins when she first catches up to him solely to extend the story beyond its natural conclusion. This not only muddies her previously clear characterisation, but also removes much of the impact from her true confrontation with Hawkins later on – a real problem seeing as this moment marks the true climax of her emotional journey.
Though in need of some tighter editing on the script to truly do justice to its powerful story, The Nightingale succeeds in its intent to effectively convey the brutality of colonisation. Perfect it is not, but Kent’s latest is surely astute, unforgiving, and, for a film set almost 200 years ago, uncomfortably relevant.
The Nightingale opens in UK cinemas on 29th November 2019.