I went to watch director Jennifer Kent's 'The Nightingale' at the Sydney Film Festival with a group of friends. On the day of the screening, one of them announced that she was swapping her ticket to see a different film. She had been spooked by a review on social media that made her wonder if Kent's sophomore feature was a lot less closer in spirit to her last movie, the primo trauma-monster creepout 'The Babadook', than she had believed.
Later that night at the cinema, Kent introduced it to the audience thusly:
"It is a tough story. It is the story of our country. It was heartbreaking for my cast and crew and I to tell. It was the most difficult thing I've ever done, but the most valuable thing I've ever done."
"You're not in for 'Avengers: Endgame'. Sorry about that."
It is true. 'The Nightingale' is not a superhero movie or a horror movie. It is an Aussie Western, a period piece set in nineteenth century Tasmania, firmly grounded in historical fact and human nature. It lacks both the structure and the signifiers that define horror, and its villain won't follow you home (or become a gay icon) in the way of Kent's previous antagonist. Yet, paradoxically, 'The Nightingale' is exponentially more troubling, upsetting, and, yes, more horrifying than 'The Babadook' - or possibly any horror movie you might see this year.
In Tasmania, 1825, we first meet Clare (Aisling Franciosi, 'Jimmy's Hall', TV's 'The Fall'), a young Irish convict as she walks down a narrow path, walls of shadowy trees boxing her in. She's hindered by a long dress and a newborn baby strapped to her back. She seems somehow imprisoned by this vast, unfathomable landscape. Kent echoes this motif in her decision to use the standard Academy square 4:3 aspect ratio, which literally cuts off the conventional wide-screen format used in many Westerns that might generically indicate the hero's symbiotic relationship with the wilderness (a technique used by Kelly Reichardt for her female-led frontier drama 'Meek's Cutoff').
Clare is an indentured servant at a remote settlement amidst the wilderness where a garrison of British troops lives a hedonistic existence - getting drunk, naked and firing their muskets at the moon. Led by the handsome Officer Hawkins (Sam Claflin, 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire', 'My Cousin Rachel'), the men find comfort in drinking away their tedium and expelling their various dissatisfactions at the particular expense of Clare, the titular 'Nightingale' who entertains the troops with her ballads. None of the soldiers get too close to their commanding officer's favourite kitchen hand, though.
Which brings us to the first rape scene. Arriving soon after the dynamic between Clare and her cruel, egotistical employer has been established, it starts as an uncomfortable encounter (Hawkins requests a song "just for me" in his private room) before transforming into something much more alarming; a vivid and terrible illustration of a domineering figure who treats everything within his grasp as an object he can abuse as he pleases. It's an infuriating moment, one that dares viewers to look the other way, while weaving that very reaction into the nature of its critique. The urge to evade that discomfort illustrates the ease with which one can block out the harsh truth of a society corrupted by powerful men.
Hawkins refuses to give Clare her long overdue papers to declare her a free woman, and when Clare's husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) grows increasingly aware of her abusive mistreatment, the pair - along with their newborn child - decide to pack up and flee to the next town. All does not go to plan.
In a meeting with his superior, Hawkins is told that he will not be recommended for a promotion to Captain, and he sets off with his men, including second-in-command Ruse (Damon Herriman, 'The Lone Ranger', the upcoming 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood') to appeal his case in Launceston, on the other side of the island - but not before taking out his aggression on Clare and her family, in pretty much every gruesome way you can imagine. No matter the extreme disgust at the centre of this scene and the devastating circumstances surrounding it (which prompted a dozen walkouts at my screening), it never feels like an empty provocation on behalf of Kent.
After her efforts to seek justice are turned down because of her lowly status and lack of papers, Clare is soon running solely on rage, sorrow, and bloodlust, as she begins to hunt the British soldiers who destroyed her life. Her only ally is the reluctant Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), the Aboriginal tracker she hires to pick up the soldiers' trail.
Billy, too, grapples with a consuming trauma: the theft of his land and the systematic extermination of his tribe. Kent mercifully steers clear of making him into a symbol for noble savagery or a simple victim - for the most part, he's a frightened but canny man, calculating his chances for survival. While Clare shares the prejudices of the white colonists, the Irish woman slowly comes to realise that she and Billy are both victims of the same system.
If you think this sounds like Abel Ferrara's rape-revenge exploitation epic 'Ms. 45' smashed together with Peter Farrelly's sentimental 'Green Book', you would be mistaken. It's more like the meat of John Hillcoat's grisly 'The Proposition' (and some of 'The Road') sewn to the bones of Jim Jarmusch's vignette-structured 'Dead Man' without the benefit of anesthetic. As Clare continues along her dark path, 'The Nightingale' gradually becomes less of a revenge film and more of a spiritual feminist Western. It begins to reveal the chaotic and horrific history beneath the order of the nascent Australia to both its characters and audience. This provides both characters and audience a possible catharsis and greater awareness of the use of violence and its physical and spiritual costs.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable thing about 'The Nightingale' is the way it fiercely contests the dominant Australian narrative of unproblematic colonial and economic expansion.
The sudden moments of bloodshed (gun shots to the head, spears slicing through throats) are uncomfortable and difficult to watch. They are delivered in visceral moments of gore that are bereft of any touches that would glamorise the death; here it is sudden, horrible and ends in the mud. The film does not glorify its violence, it abhors it and so do we. It shows us people who are essentially good doing bad things, and people who are inherently bad doing unspeakably worse things. Australia was built on the violent control and subjugation of the Aboriginals and (to a lesser degree) its Irish immigrants, and most of the white men roaming the bush in 'The Nightingale' are nasty and deadly brutes.
Which brings us to the first of Clare's murders (the second moment that prompted walkouts from my screening). The filming of the killing switches between a close-up of the face of the murderer and her victim. She stares down, looming over him, while he gazes up, helpless. The murder is not the kind of intensifying, event-heightening slow motion shoot-'em-up that Sam Peckinpah famously utilised in 'The Wild Bunch'. It is a belabouring and excruciating combination of bullet, blade and bludgeon, bringing the audience closer to both the victim's suffering and Clare's growing repulsion at the horror she is committing. As her determined grimace melts into a gore-flecked expression of desperate exhaustion, both film viewer and Clare see violence's visceral ugliness and recognise the evil needed to wield it repeatedly.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable thing about 'The Nightingale' is the way it fiercely contests the dominant Australian narrative of unproblematic colonial and economic expansion. It explicitly links the colonial process with the suffering of Indigenous peoples, bringing into view the barbaric racism of various white individuals both towards one another and towards Indigenous peoples. Yet it is also a film about the cost of colonisation for "white" people. In the end, the political critique provided in 'The Nightingale' of the white colonisation of Australia and the destruction of Indigenous peoples and cultures collapses back into a story about a white woman struggling for revenge. This film invites viewers to recognise the cost of colonialism - the blood that was spilt in forming a nation or settling the land.
'The Nightingale' is anchored by Aisling Franciosi's performance, which shifts between traumatised, ghostly and balefully furious. Sam Claflin has been turning in some impressive work playing weak men in films like 'Journey's End', and his Hawkins is as deplorable a depiction of white colonial violence as ever depicted on film (Kent cast the appealing Claflin to intentionally subvert the "ugly rapist" trope). Perhaps most impressive is Baykali Ganambarr, who, as the film's representative of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people, bears the emotional brunt of some of its most devastating moments. When forced to confront the unspeakable evils that have been brought upon his people and his homeland, the emotion that bubbles up is breathtaking.
Kent maps out the terrain of this nearly post-apocalyptic nineteenth century Tasmania with despair and dark humour, as a thick current of social commentary courses beneath every tense moment. 'The Nightingale' is dripping in painstakingly-researched period detail, from the cabins, muskets, and buttons on the clothing, through to the regional dialects of the indigenous characters. Her location shots are also quite striking in spite of their boxy academy ratio. The film cannot be critiqued without mention of the haunting score by Jed Kurzel - even the use of traditional Celtic melody and tribal songs works perfectly.
While 'The Nightingale' is a work of fearless intent, there are also several frustrating elements that emerge. People are prone to doing very dumb things. Clare's husband Aidan does so in spectacular fashion by picking a fight with the local army. Clare, though righteous, is deeply complicated by her racial prejudice (her maddening refusal to take any of Billy's advice, no matter how plainly sensible, is extremely testing). Hawkins commits atrocities against Indigenous peoples, but expects his native trackers to lead him safely to Launceston.
Characters are sharply divided between good and evil, with little grey area in between, and their dialogue is often blunt and repetitive. We are but beasts, feigning civilisation while doing what beasts do: the film raises this point only to hammer it home again and again.
Even with its flaws, this feminist Western is too violent, too dirty, too bloody, and too barbaric to be forgotten easily. When the lights in the cinema came on, the woman next to me was crying and, a few rows over, a man murmured that he had PTSD. 'The Nightingale' is not an easy film to watch and certainly not one to expect to come out of laughing or feeling terrific. But it will make you will feel something, which is a rare thing for a film to be able to do today.