The evil that men do in Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale” is far more frightening than any monster from her 2014 horror debut “The Babadook.”
The 19th century colonial tale of retribution features an Irish convict (Aisling Franciosi) and her Aboriginal tracker (Baykali Ganambarr) on the hunt for the British soldiers that left her for dead after committing a heinous crime. At times difficult to watch, the brutal film features unforgettable performances by Franciosi, Ganambarr and the usually debonair Sam Clafin ditching his image to personify evil in the chilling film.
Set in 1825 Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen’s Land), Aisling Franciosi (Lyanna Stark in “Game of Thrones”) plays 21-year-old convict and married mother Clare who just finished serving a seven-year sentence for committing petty larceny in her native Ireland. Her British captor, Lt. Hawkins (Claflin), refuses to sign her release forms, opting instead to keep her around to entertain the men with her singing and to have his way with her when she’s not home with husband, Aidan (Michael Sheasby), also a former convict, and newborn daughter.
After a night of drinking, Hawkins and his cronies commit a barbarous act of violence in the film’s most shocking moment leaving Clare for dead. She tries to report the crime but the word of a woman and a convict over an officer doesn’t carry much weight with the British authorities.
Forced to take justice into her own hands, Clare sets out to find Hawkins, who’s left his post in Launceston for a captain position up north. She hires a 21-year-old Aboriginal tracker named Billy, played by Baykali Ganambarr, an experienced dancer with the Aboriginal troupe Djuki Mala, to guide her through the harsh terrain of the Australian outback.
Initially, Clare and Billy don’t trust each other. She’s a racist who refers to him as “boy,” and he just sees the color of her skin, white, like the British colonists who murdered his father, brothers and uncles, while snatching away the women of his village. They don’t realize that they are fighting the same enemy. But as the film becomes a road trip through the outback, the atrocities they witness along the way bring the two closer together.
The film takes place during a dark chapter in Australia’s history known as The Black War, which pitted the British colonists against the indigenous Aboriginal people.
Kent chose not to give viewers a watered-down version of her country’s violent past as the Aboriginal people were often murdered, raped and held captive by the invading European settlers. She strove for authenticity by bringing in historical experts to oversee the film’s production, including Aboriginal consultant Jim Everett.
Shot by cinematographer Radek Ladczuk in the square Academy ratio (1:33), the industry standard before widescreen was a thing, and clocking in at 140 minutes, “The Nightingale” takes the audience on a harrowing journey led by a female vigilante that evokes powerful imagery.
The more I thought about Kent’s film, the more it reminded me of a Clint Eastwood Western with a rage-filled female protagonist in place of the tobacco- chewing icon. While violence was prominent in those ’70s Westerns, it was also diluted, unlike Kent, who doesn’t hold back.
Franciosi and Ganambarr are stunning in the film, but it’s Sam Claflin’s surprising performance as the immoral and merciless lieutenant that delivers the biggest impact. What an image breaker for the actor primarily known as a romantic lead.
It’s not fair to discount “The Nightingale” as just a rape-revenge drama. Despite all the hostility, the relationship between Clare and Billy provides a form of hope as the two learn to view each other with empathy. To find any sort of compassion in such a brutal landscape is heartening.