Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is a savagely brilliant masterpiece

Reviewed by Kristy Puchko

It’s rare that a press screening comes with a warning. But in the wake of reported walkouts, invites to see Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale came with a warning. In red font, critics were alerted that the film would contain “sexual violence towards women, violence towards children, and violence motivated by racism.” Since the film’s Venice premiere last fall, some have criticized Kent for the brutality found in her much-anticipated follow-up to her breakthrough debut The Babadook. However, considering her sophomore effort is a revenge-thriller that explores the sins of colonialism, the brutality is essential to its message. To capture the merciless of this domineering mindset, Kent won’t look away from its violence and depravity. And she won’t let us look away either.

Written and directed by Kent, The Nightingale centers on Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young wife and mother who works tirelessly all day and into the night so that she can then curl up cozy with her loving husband and darling infant daughter. But Clare’s meager sliver of family bliss is threatened by the sneering Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). See, Clare and her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) are Irish ex-cons, shipped to the English colony in 1825 Australia to work off their sentences as indentured servants. Though she’s served her time, Hawkins won’t let her go. The brash cad calls her his “nightingale,” regards her as a pet or “property,” and relishes having her perform for his scurvy soldiers, who wolf-whistle and made lewd gestures at the stoic songbird. But this arrangement is festering. So, one dark night, he brings hell to the door of her humble home.

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Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr in The Nightingale

The next morning, this nightingale rises like phoenix, on fire with rage and a need for vengeance. With Hawkins on the move through dangerous Tasmanian wilderness, Clare decides to hunt him down. What little money she has, she offers an Aboriginal tracker called Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) for his help. Staring each other down across a racial divide encouraged by their colonizers, the pair initially make for uneasy allies. She holds her rifle at the ready in case he steps out of line. He vanishes into the bush anytime there’s a flash of trouble. She derisively calls this grown man “boy,” a racist epithet, while he regards her as another “white devil.” But as they make their way through unforgiving terrain, bloody battles, and paralyzing personal trauma, Clare and Billy begin to understand each other, forging a friendship that is literally life-saving.

The Nightingale is inarguably brutal. But between the walkouts and the warning, I was surprised by the way it is brutal. There are acts of horrific violence and violation throughout the film. At times, the sheer onslaught of inhumanity doled out by Hawkins and his cronies is overwhelming. But Kent largely avoids getting graphic. Though there are rape scenes, there is little nudity, and none that seeks to sexualize a terrified victim. Though there will be blood, Kent rejects using it as ghoulish spectacle, as if this were a splashy slasher flick. Even when violence is enacted by our heroes, Kent makes sure it’s disturbing. There’ll be no smug smiles or witty one-liners reminiscent of the cavalier kills of American action heroes. This revenge thriller offers no thrills in kills, just grisliness.

In scenes of sexual assault, Kent won’t allow the audience to escape the horrors of the crime. Her camera stays with the victim. In close-up, their expression of shock, pain, and panic is harrowing, as is the vicious thrusting that throws their body up and down in the frame, never letting us forget what is happening just off camera. Similarly, scenes of maiming and murder are prolonged and horrific, in part because of Kent’s intense sound design. The screams of the attacked clash with the bellows of the attacker and the wails of helpless witnesses. Then, there’s dizzying sound effects like the sickening thunk of a rifle butt to a skull or the slurpy wallop of knife stabbing again and again into soft flesh. Even if you look away from the screen, you can’t escape the violence resounding in the audio mix. And the audience itself adds to this element. In arguably the film’s most shocking sequence, a pitch of onscreen screams is cut short by one breathtakingly heinous act of violence. The audience at the IFC Theater gasped in unison, as if we’d all been punched simultaneously in the gut. Then a dead silence fell over the crowd, the only sound the ragged breathing of a loathsome attacker.

All this brutality is hard to handle, but absolutely necessary. Kent is shining a light on the inhumanity of colonization that setup modern institutions, which still carry the taint of these racists and misogynistic roots. In The Nightingale, Kent will give no mercy to her audience because the white-patriarchy and dehumanizing entitlement of colonialization deserves no mercy. It’s been deified long enough. Kent wants to set us on fire like our harrowed heroine, to see this corruption and seek to rip it out by its blood-soaked roots. But brutality is not all there is to The Nightingale, for Kent weaves in a thread of hope and compassion so radiant it made me weep.

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Aisling Franciosi

Through the friendship of Clare and Billy, Kent carves out a path to healing and self-reclamation. The pair have much more in common than their shared hatred of the English. Both carry the songs of their people in their hearts, unleashing them in voices strong and beautiful. While Clare is called a nightingale, Billy declares himself a mangana, a native black bird that flies high and free. In their initial wariness, they communicate in English, the language of their oppressors. But as they bond, she will sing in Irish Gaelic. He will speak words of comfort in the palawa kani language. Subtitles tell English-speakers what they’re saying, but these two need no such translations. While they don’t literally understand each other, when he says “I am here for you” in his native tongue, she feels that. By the final act, the two’s connection transcends language. Reunited after a frightful severing, they run to each other. They do not speak. They do not touch. Instead, Clare and Billy look into each other’s eyes. A tear races down the face of each in twinned close-ups. And that is all. That is all to need to communicate their joy in this reunion and their shared relief. It’s such a simple moment. But growing from the vicious muck of this colonial nightmare, it’s one of breath-giving beauty and radical optimism.

Of course, the success of this arc is dependent on Franciosi and Ganambarr. Thankfully, as was true with The Babadook, Kent has a remarkable eye for talent. The pair share a sparking chemistry that transitions seamlessly from crackling distrust to uneasy alliance to profound friendship. Beyond that, Ganambarr brings a brusque charm and a wary compassion as Billy. Meanwhile, Franciosi shoulders the film’s most challenging moments with a gruff aplomb. Her performance is one of fragile restraint. Her soft features trembling to project a society-demanded calm, even when Clare fears her world is about to shatter into pieces. As she journeys into the wilderness, Kent journeys into Clare’s trauma. Dream sequences begin lovely and vaguely haunting, with our heroine dancing at a frame rate that recalls the earliest of cinema. But each night these visions turn to terror, blood, and screaming. We see trauma transform Clare from a guarded servant to a trembling, blood-splattered vigilante, and beyond to something softer and hard won.

In the end, The Nightingale is riveting and ruthless, yet achingly tender. Kent has dug into the horrors of the past to unearth ugly truths of our present but also shine a light on the path out of the darkness. She gives us to heroes who are complicated and courageous, and binds us to their struggles by never leaving them alone in it. Through all of this, Kent gives us a savagely brilliant masterpiece of horror, humanity, and ultimately hope.

The Nightingale opens today.

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