Trigger/Content Warning: The film The Nightingale, and my essay about it below, contains topics of a potentially traumatizing nature involving sexual violence against women, and racist violence against indigenous peoples.
At very specific moments throughout The Nightingale, director Jennifer Kent has her characters look directly into the camera. Her main character, Clare, does so both as she’s singing a song to entertain English troops posted in the Australian outback and as the commanding officer of those troops is brutalizing her. Kent even manages to catch a shot of an infant – within the movie, it’s Clare’s baby – looking into the camera as the little one falls asleep.
These moments set Kent’s film apart. They implicate every member of the audience in the horrific violence happening on screen. They also tie the oppressed and dehumanized characters to Kent herself. We’ve seen this kind of story many times before, but almost never from a female perspective. Kent’s vision is a shattering one.
Set in 1825, just as the English are starting a push to colonize the whole of the Australian continent, The Nightingale is the story of Irish convict Clare. She has served all of a seven-year sentence of hard labor in an Australian penal colony, but her master, Lieutenant Hawkins, refuses to release the letter that will free her. During her sentence, Clare has married and had a child, and she is desperate to start a new life with her family. Clare’s husband, Aidan, gets drunk one night and demands that Hawkins release his wife from her life of servitude. The confrontation ends in disaster for Clare’s family.
That last sentence doesn’t even begin to do justice to the depraved horrors to which Hawkins and two of his subordinates, soldiers Ruse and Jago, subject Clare and her family. When I asked about screening the film, the communication I received from the publicity firm for The Nightingale asked that reviewers not reveal the specific nature of the brutality that takes place in the opening scenes. So, I’ll just say it involves rape and an unconscionable act of murder. The rest of the film involves Clare’s quest for vengeance when Hawkins leaves the devastation he’s wrought to apply for a promotion to Captain of a settlement to the north.
In her director’s statement, Jennifer Kent expressed that her film represents an opportunity to confront the historical cycles of violence, misogyny, racism, and oppression that colonialism has perpetuated. That is certainly true. It’s also important that a member of an oppressed class has the opportunity to tell a story like this, instead of the straight, white male perspective we usually get. But that doesn’t entirely negate the feeling I got while watching The Nightingale.
While Kent’s film does force its audience to confront both brutal violence against women as well as racism – both Clare and Hawkins force Aboriginal trackers to help them make their way through the Australian bush – these issues feel at times secondary to telling a hell of a good revenge yarn.
And it certainly is a hell of a good revenge yarn. I haven’t seen anything close to it since the vicious 2005 Australian Western The Proposition. In that film, the colonizing force wants to clean up the rogue actors within its own society. In The Nightingale, it’s the very power structure of the colonizing force itself which is the perpetrator of the violence and depravity. This is a crucial distinction to make, and I think it is Kent’s perspective as a woman that gives it to us.
At times the violence and depravity of The Nightingale threaten to overwhelm it. The film is soaked in it. Throughout the movie, I felt I was drowning in it. That might be cause to praise Jennifer Kent for creating an atmosphere so alive and visceral that it’s inescapable. Objectively, she certainly seems to have achieved her aesthetic goal. Subjectively, I became so stunned that my only escape was despondency.
That feeling became acute when Hawkins, Ruse, and Jago, along with their Aboriginal guide Charlie, come across an Aboriginal woman (who speaks no English), and her baby. Ruse, who is even more sadistic than Hawkins, abducts the woman and pleads with his commanding officer, Hawkins, to let him rape her. “Please sir, I’ve always wanted to try one,” he says. He’ll even let Hawkins have her first. The guide Charlie looks away in his own despondency. There is nothing he can do to help this woman that won’t get them both killed, and he knows it.
So, it’s no surprise that The Nightingale caused upwards of 30 walkouts during a screening at The Sydney Film Festival. Kent defended her film afterwards as depicting historically accurate acts of violence. That may be true, but as I sat through my own screening, I thought what many of the people who walked out during their screening must have thought before they did so, “I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
There is one human connection in The Nightingale that offers a glint of hope in the darkness of inhumanity, although it doesn’t start out that way. Clare all but forces an Aboriginal man named Billy to help her track Hawkins in her quest for revenge. Reinforcing the colonial hierarchy – white men at the top, followed by white women, and all people of color at the bottom – Clare holds a gun on Billy, letting him know she regards him as not much better than a dog.
Billy has suffered his own horrors at the hands of the white occupiers. His entire family was slaughtered by the English military. Clare and Billy have their own emotional journey as they traverse the at times beautiful – and beautifully shot by cinematographer Radek Ladczuk – Australian outback. At first mistrustful of one another, Clare and Billy eventually come to rely on each other.
This is illustrated in a beautiful scene that sees the two reunited on a backwoods road after they are separated. The joyous human connection in that one moment comes close to making the punishing violence of the rest of the film worth it.
As you might imagine, the look of The Nightingale is grey and bleak. There is one glorious, soaring bit of color in the closing seconds of the film. A brilliant sunrise breaks over the ocean. It presides over the end of Clare and Billy’s story. Like their emotional connection, the beautiful sunrise serves as a signifier of hope. Hope that through understanding and empathy with others, especially those who look nothing like us, the endless cycle of violence and oppression might finally be stopped.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- The Nightingale is an extremely tough sit. While I’m not wholly convinced that some of the brutality of it isn’t in service of making a good revenge yarn, it does make its audience confront issues of racism, misogyny, and violence in our society.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- To express just how graphic this film is, if you’ve seen The Revenant, you will be familiar with a scene involving an indigenous woman being raped and beaten by French fur trappers. The Nightingale is almost like an entire movie of that scene.
- I’m a sucker for filmmakers playing with the form, and Kent uses the classical Academy Ratio (1.33:1) as a way to box the story into it’s historical time frame.
- I was able to catch up with Jennifer Kent’s debut film from 2014, The Babadook, before I watched The Nightingale. That’s a horror movie about crushing grief and the exhaustion and exasperation of being a parent. It’s genuinely creepy and dark, but it seems like a delightful romp in comparison to The Nightingale. Even though this movie is technically a revenge/road movie, it’s every bit as terrifying as any horror movie.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- I watched this through a screener link in my home theater. It was every bit as harrowing of an experience at home alone as I’m sure it would have been in a theater.