I went into The Nightingale mostly just knowing that it was the second feature film from Jennifer Kent, the writer, director, and creator of queer icon The Babadook. On paper, a brief synopsis of The Nightingale almost sounds like an action movie; something akin to Kill Bill or John Wick. This is the story of Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict who sets off to get her revenge against a British officer after he commits a horrible act against her and her family. But don’t get it twisted, there’s nothing fun or satisfying about this story. Had I known that this movie had a reputation for being unflinchingly brutal – to the point that it was a common occurrence for audiences to storm out of screenings – I might not have decided to dedicate one of my precious few reviews this Shocktober to it. But the whole idea of this genre is to push yourself out of your comfort zone and I do believe Jennifer Kent is an amazing talent, so I guess I don’t regret my ignorance. That said, if you haven’t seen this one yet, you should probably know what you’re getting into.
Spoilers: Here’s what happens in the first act of The Nightingale. Skip below the image if you’d prefer to not know.
Set in a British colony in Tasmania in 1825, The Nightingale begins with Clare’s miserable status quo. She works as a servant under the cruel Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin, playing very against type) who is obviously denying her freedom for his own pleasure. The one bright spot she has is her beloved husband, Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and their baby, who she can only see at the very beginning and end of the day. The family considers running away, but Clare fears that they would be separated if they were captured. So she clings to hope that Hawkins will eventually give her the recommendation she needs to gain her freedom.
The unit is visited by an officer who is assessing how fit Hawkins would be for a promotion. Clare serves the lewd, gropey men drinks and provides entertainment by singing for them. Later she visits Hawkins in his office and asks for her papers, which he brushes off and makes her sing “his song.” He then intimidates, abuses, and rapes Clare – something he has implicitly done many times. Clare then goes and gets yelled at for being late picking up her baby before finally returning home and hiding what had happened from Aidan.
The next night, Aidan publicly demands Hawkins give Clare her papers. When Hawkins scoffs at this, Aidan throws a punch and ends up in a brawl with Hawkins and his men Jago (Harry Greenwood) and Ruse (Damon Herriman aka Dewey Crowe aka Charles Manson). The visiting officer witnesses this and tells Hawkins that he is not fit for promotion. Meanwhile, Clare and her family have gone home to gather supplies and escape into The bush. But before they can flee, the three soldiers arrive and block the door. Hawkins rapes Clare and kills Aidan when he tries to fight back. He then instructs Ruse to rape Clare and orders Jago to silence the crying baby, which he does by killing the infant. Jago knocks Clare out with the butt of his rifle.
The next morning, Clare awakens surrounded by her family’s corpses. She takes her baby’s body to the Royal Military Police, who tell her its her word – a convict and a woman’s word – against his, so she leaves disgusted. Realizing no one will help her, Clare decides to take revenge herself. A friend convinces Clare to at least take a guide with her, so she hires an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) under the pretense that she’s looking for her husband. The duo take her horse and rifle and head off on a terrible journey to do what must be done.
The Nightingale is a lot. Sean Baker wrote “It may just be the most violent film I’ve ever seen. And because the violence is rooted in realism and not pulp, it is extremely disturbing.” I can think of other movies that have individual moments that are more gruesome, but that’s not what Jennifer Kent seemed to be trying to do. There’s nothing fantastical about the violence, it’s clumsy and awkward. There’s no slow-mo, no big effect shots, not even really any nudity. It’s just a depiction of a world where trauma is a repeated fact of life. And because it feels so grounded, it feels so much worse.
I think everyone’s heard jokes about Australia’s history as a prison colony, but facing the reality of that is no laughing matter. Like here in America, this was the site of a continental genocide. And the people doing it really didn’t care about anyone but themselves. Clare faces plenty of discrimination as a woman, as an Irishman, and as a convict, leaving her totally powerless legally and vulnerable to any whose eye she catches. Billy has had his identity and home taken from him and is well aware that any white man they meet could kill him without giving it a second thought. What distinguishes him from Clare is he still clings onto a sliver of hope: his dream that he could be reunited with the survivors of his people to the north. How do you think that’s going to go?
It’s tough stuff. Historically accurate sexism, violence, and racism not only did not inspire people to seek this one out in theaters, it even encouraged those who did see it to walk out. The Nightingale didn’t even make a million dollars worldwide at the box office, which is maybe why Jennifer Kent’s next project is an episode of Guillermo del Toro’s horror anthology series on Netflix. But hopefully she gets another feature after that, because she has created two of the most powerful depictions of trauma I’ve ever seen, and I’d — with increasing trepidation — love to see what other stories she’d like to tell.