Few arthouse films this year are as likely to appeal to an Irish audience than The Nightingale, writer-director Jennifer Kent’s follow up to her breakout debut The Babadook from 2014. After all the Aussie filmmaker’s latest is essentially an extremer more brutal – yet also somehow more contemplative and emotional – take on last year’s domestic box-office smash Black 47.
While The Nightingale is set in 1825 Tasmania, Australia, it still focuses on the suffering inflicted on the Irish by our former colonial British oppressors. The Western, again like Black 47, depicts what happens when one of these victims is stripped so much of dignity that they have nothing left to lose. In The Nightingale, this figure is Clare Carroll (The Fall’s Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict sent to Van Diemen’s land for her ‘crimes’.
An early scene of Clare clutching her baby with one hand and a knife in the other is all you need to know about the nightmarish world of Kent’s latest, its events transpiring in a time and place where if you were Irish or an Aboriginal Australian you had a target on your back. Set during Tasmania’s Black War, Australia’s British colonialists are massacring the indigenous populations by the hundreds. As punishment, Clare works for one of these colonists Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), someone who abuses his power over her for sex.
When Clare’s fellow Irish husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) notices she’s been left with bruises from one of these encounters, he confronts Hawkins. The resulting brawl ends with Clare out for vengeance against the lieutenant and his Australian right-hand man Ruse (Damon Herriman). To help her in this quest, she employs the services of Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal tracker whose the last of this people – the rest wiped out by the British.
The Nightingale is not for the faint of heart. It’s as violent as Rambo: Last Blood and more visceral. However, unlike this year’s Stallone vehicle, the violence in Kent’s film is never something to be leered over or to derive pleasure from. Hawkins and Ruse who kick-start the revenge narrative could not be construed as anything other than pathetic. The two are written and depicted as angry petty men, people who take out their frustration at not getting what they feel they’re entitled to on Clare, her family and any other unfortunate minority they happen to come across – an element of the Western that feels extremely current despite the 19th century setting.
Despite his ranking, Hawkins feels powerless. He’s been stationed at a remote post in the Tasmanian wilderness for years and his superior Goodwin (a small turn from the great Ewan Leslie) thinks little of him. His horrific treatment of Clare – coupled with the psychological abuse he inflicts on child prisoner Eddie (Charlie Shotwell) later on in the story – is his way of re-asserting his dominance. Because of the time and the fact that Clare and Eddie are Irish and orphans respectively, he can do what he likes to them without consequences. They are not seen as people.
In fact, the main reason for the brawl that leaves Clare out for vengeance is little to do with Aidan. It’s more the fact that Goodwin tells Hawkins he will not be recommending him for the promotion he wants, meaning the lieutenant must trek through the treacherous bush of the region to submit his application in person – setting the stage for Clare’s revenge odyssey. Hawkins just directs his anger towards the Irish couple.
Someone who feels even less powerful is Ruse, another character who is often belittled by Hawkins. The latter has contempt for anyone he sees as below him and instead of challenging Hawkins on that, Ruse again punches down the class system of the time – using the limited power he has for his own warped sexual gratification.
Ruse and Hawkins feel like two sides of the same coin. Claflin in a brave performance puts his A-list looks to chilling use, playing someone whose outward appearance belies their inner evil. What’s interior in Hawkins is all exterior in Ruse, meanwhile. Often dishevelled, openly vulgar and constantly drunk, it’s as if the latter knows he’s despicable, placing that side of himself out in the open for all to see. It’s another terrific terrifying performance by Herriman, who caps off 2019 playing another psychopath after portraying Charles Manson twice.
It could be satisfying to watch Hawkins and Ruse get their just deserts. And to an extent The Nightingale should satisfy fans of Death Wish or Death Sentence. However, Kent’s Western is far more meditative. Its focus is on the messiness of revenge and the toll it takes on someone to kill for the first time – even if the person being murdered is the one who took everything from you. It’s telling that on Clare’s vengeance mission through the Tasmanian wilderness – by eschewing wide panoramic shots, Kent makes the locations feel both claustrophobic and endless – that the man who gets the slowest, most painful death is an underling of Hawkins and Ruse, a person who acted under orders and the only one to express deep remorse. The Nightingale argues successfully real life is more complex than the tidiness of the revenge film formula.
Those reading may be wondering: ‘What’s the point of The Nightingale then? It’s a vengeance movie which denies viewers many of the thrills of the sub-genre.” However, the Western does something better. It’s to Kent’s great credit that she finds so much humanity in such a grim story. This is through the friendship that develops between Clare and Billy.
Both are antagonistic towards each other at first. Clare, thanks to her British overseers, has been conditioned to think of Billy and his people as sub-human. Billy, meanwhile, believes Clare with her white skin is just another British racist.
Watching the pair overcome these misguided first impressions and realising all they have in common – her nickname is ‘nightingale’ for her singing voice and his is ‘blackbird’ on account of his native name, both have had loved ones murdered by colonists – truly is the ray of hope that makes the misery of the movie worthwhile. This feeling of humanism is further bolstered by the performances of Franciosi and Ganambarr. The duo convince as people hardened by immense cruelty inflicted on them, who gradually begin to trust and care for each other.
In ways, Clare and Billy’s bond is similar to the relationship shared between Joaquin Phoenix’s hitman and the pre-teen girl he rescues in You Were Never Really Here, two survivors of abuse joining forces in a bleak world for the better. If that revenge thriller cemented it’s writer-director Lynne Ramsey as one of the best filmmakers in the world,The Nightingale does the same for Kent. Her transition from supernatural horror into real life horror proves The Babadook was no fluke.