Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Jennifer Kent

Stars: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Damon Herriman, Baykali Ganambarr, Charlie Shotwell.

Aisling Franciosi in The Nightingale (2018)

The sophomore feature from Jennifer Kent (2014’s The Babadook), The Nightingale offers up horrors of a different kind. Set in Tasmania in 1825, the film is something of a colonial western, a bloody, brutal and unflinching tale of revenge that also addresses the savage history of colonial Australia, the systemic abuse and mistreatment of women and the indigenous population. It makes a powerful statement about a history bathed in blood, and Kent does not pull her punches with her tight and fearless direction. The Nightingale is more brutal and savage than the recent Sweet Country, and its themes of race, revenge, colonialism, power, the mistreatment of the indigenous population still have a contemporary relevance.

The central character here is Clara (newcomer Aisling Franciosi), an indentured former convict waiting to gain her ticket of leave and become a free woman. Her fate is in the hands of the arrogant and ambitious and abusive Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin, from The Hunger Games, Adrift, etc), who continually delays his decision so he can bed her. But one night her husband is killed by Hawkins and his crude, obnoxious sergeant Ruse (Damon Herriman). She is brutally raped, and her baby murdered.

Hawkins leaves to make his way to his new posting in Launceston. Clara sets out for revenge, pursuing Hawkins in a dangerous journey through the tough and unforgiving Tasmanian wilderness. She engages the aid of a local tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to help guide her through the wilderness. Billy himself is bitter and distrustful of the white folk because of his experiences – he was taken from his family and he has watched aboriginals being slaughtered and their land taken away.

The film has been shot on location in Tasmania’s rugged forest regions and looks stunning thanks to the superb lensing of Polish cinematographer Radek Ladczuk (The Babadook) who brings out both the natural beauty but also the harshness of the terrain. The decision to shoot in the boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio brings an almost claustrophobic feel to the material. And the production design from Alex Holmes (The Babadook, etc) further adds to the period authenticity.

Franciosi (better known for playing Lyanna Stark in the tv series Game Of Thrones) is good in a physically demanding role and she conveys Clara’s pain, anguish and physical distress. Cast against type here Claflin is suitably cold and nasty as the unrelentingly sadistic villain of the piece. In his first acting role, Ganambarr delivers a natural and sensitive performance.

The Nightingale is an unapologetically and confronting, hard-hitting drama. The violence here is quite raw, bloody and graphic and disturbing, but Kent infuses the material with a strong sense of compassion. She apparently collaborated with the local indigenous population to ensure authenticity and historical accuracy in her depiction of the film’s central themes and elements.

The tough rape sequence apparently caused a number of walkouts when the film screened at the Sydney Film Festival. However, those scenes, tough to sit through as they are, are neither gratuitous nor graphic. Although an important film, The Nightingale will not appeal widely mainly because of its handling of some controversial subject matter.


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