[NOTE: An official selection of the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival]
I feel like I need to choose my words very, very carefully with this film. I will warn immediately it is not an easy sit in a theater; it may not be for anyone who reads this and has the courage to brave it out on the big screen or down the road in its eventual VOD release. The Nightingale, Jennifer Kent’s tawdry, bitter, painful follow-up to her acclaimed horror smash The Babadook, does not sugarcoat through its setting and its source material. Its own form of scares is more to the point and set in a less likely place: 1820s Tasmania, when British colonial law still ran rampant over the Australian continent, the island then known more morbidly as “Van Diemen’s Land.”
It was obviously a far different time back then, where ethics didn’t mean squat if you weren’t a soldier in the army keeping control over your penal colony. And for our protagonist, young adult-aged Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi), she has not had it easy during her committed sentence, a persistent victim of poor treatment at the hands of her superior, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who only has his own career interests in mind, not much else. Her patience eventually runs out after major events are set in motion to leave her further isolated, husband and young child sacrificed by Hawkins’s fellow soldiers. It’s one of many impossible scenes that make even the first half-hour purely gut-wrenching.
Those with squeamish tendencies are probably better off seeking elsewhere for cinematic entertainment; what Kent accomplishes is far from ideal. But look past all the violence, the suffering Clare experiences first-hand, and we still have plenty worth sticking through all its 136 minutes. There’s the corruption in play with Hawkins and his troops, the lieutenant being a little self-centered, or a lot. Claflin plays the role with finite vindictiveness his fellow troops would likely envy. There’s the charm of the deep Tasmanian woods as shot with Radek Ladczuk’s unique eye for natural forest layering.
And there’s the inner conflict of political upheaval between the colonialists and Aboriginal natives, continually at war with each other over property ownership. This is the scenario Clare reluctantly wanders into. Her objective is simple: follow Hawkins through the woods into a nearby town where he just so happens to have a possible promotion in the offing. That does require a lengthy hike, following, and the need of a guide, the native known to his friends as Billy (first-time actor Baykali Ganambarr). Having to work with an Aborigine is the last thing Clare’s really desiring; it’s bad enough the British are against her, the same way they, and she, are toward Billy. Neither are that excited about having to cross through the humid forest together, but she does hold the promise of a minimal payment, so that ought to count for something. At the least, Franciosi’s unwavering determination is the one constant for the whole film. Dignified, and never cowering during a challenge.
For all it manages to get right: the casting, the scenery, and much of Kent’s directorial choices flourishing, building on her strengths from Babadook, trying to make all the more painful aspects of Clare’s single-minded quest blend in more fluidly does come up short, evolving into its own unwarranted distraction. As dual writer/director, Kent remains proficient to craft a seat-gripper of a story, and at times it is that. The rest of the time, with all the traumatic imagery, it’s impossible to determine just what kind of audience would be up for any of that shock-and-awe filmmaking without it being a tired gimmick. Naturally, it’s not what I look for in a film. Kent makes it work for the rest of the film to make sense, a necessary price to pay. But compared to the tamer 2/3rds where it’s a simple revenge plot mixed with elements of a subdued horror tale, its need to belong just could not click.
The segments that would its film’s heavy trigger-warning, and IFC, the film’s US distributor doesn’t take any of it lightly, it’s reportedly caused walkouts and some mild reactions from audience members during the festival circuit earlier this summer. Even the packed audience I had sat with during its SIFF presentation caused a smidgeon of both, but it wasn’t a large swath of people walking away, oddly enough. Those who stayed caught the wave of filmic symbolism Kent was aiming for.
The Nightingale is appropriately named for Clare being a bit of a songbird, and Billy’s spirit animal being a mockingbird. Such a peaceful bird would serve as enough of a middle ground, even if what Kent is aiming for is disappointingly unclear. The Babadook is still a wonderful surprise in the horror genre, her name making waves in international cinema just five years prior; this, on the other hand, is a less versatile work, far tougher to swallow, but still possessing the makings of a captivating drama that I could possibly come back to. That may be solely to see Franciosi excel as a committed mother and widower wanting justice for her family, and a peaceful resolution for her own soul. Vengeance is never an easy topic to capture on film, particularly with deep historical ties. And yet, regardless of the uneasiness, Kent insists upon to illustrate her point, The Nightingale, particularly at its quiet, nearly wordless ending, manages to simplify the process, and yet maintain essential complexity, like a flightless bird. You can’t expect it to stay on the ground for long; when it does, it makes perfect sense as to why. (C-)
The Nightingale is rated R and opens in Seattle this weekend; 136 minutes. View the trailer below…