The Babadook’s Jennifer Kent finally returns to the screen with an indictment, a film of even more despairing rage and stifled compassion. It’s The Nightingale and its a whole different genre exercise, but an exercise it is indeed – of mind, body, and most importantly, soul. This time, Kent’s ghosts carry the burden of brutal history, forcing the audience to face a continent’s past and even more foundational evils of humanity still taking root in modern society. The Nightingale is bleak and uncompromising, an exhaustive polemic of staggering composition, if sometimes porously communicated.
In early 1800s Tasmania, Clare (an impressive Aisling Franciosi) is a former convict once sent to Australian prison for stealing food for survival as a homeless youth. Her confinement has been replaced by wartime servitude to a military base run by Officer Hawkins (Sam Clafin, against type in the extreme), who leers over her. When Hawkins and his crew assault Clare and her family with devastating ends, Clare sets off on a journey of violent revenge across a dangerous landscape.
But Clare isn’t alone on her journey – she enlists, or rather enforces, the help of the Aboriginal Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to track Hawkins and his soldiers between military stations. Kent is depicting a setting of omnipresent violence not only towards women, but to people of color as well. Soldiers speak of killing Aboriginals on sight, and Kent shows Clare as racist without hesitation. It’s a complicated depiction – where less honest films would turn Clare into a more saintly figure, The Nightingale takes the more authentic terrain and reveals her full ideology as it certainly would have been.
Billy is used to violence, more confrontational and self-preservational than his captor. Ganambarr is the closest thing to the film’s salve, a charismatic performer than ultimately plays audience surrogate thanks to his ability to call out Clare’s hypocrisy and his more articulate rage. Clare, however Irish-white-nationalist she begins, thaws from sublimating her rage into her racism and slowly begins to see her own part in the cycle of male-dominated violence. They are victims of the same cycle, but Clare is in the position to perpetuate it – and she does.
It’s not a flawlessly depicted lesson in intersectional oppression, or a continually graceful one. Often the film feels like Kent shoving our faces in layers of shit, particularly for how it reveals Clare as actively participating in Billy’s oppression. But Kent doesn’t always trust the audience with the context she is providing them, resulting in moments that run against both the film’s starkness and characteristically complex portraiture. Along the way, unnecessary monologues stumble for easy answers that the film otherwise doesn’t seek – Clare actually asks Billy at one point if he’s ever been oppressed by a white man. A late monologue serves to underline what is already felt, in a surprising lack of narrative confidence, given the rest of the film’s formidable, rigorous composure surrounding it.
For many viewers, The Nightingale’s unflinching depiction of sexual violence and racism will be much to bear – especially the soul-crushing extended sequence that depicts the rape of an Aboriginal mother. But it’s capacity to stir debate and its immaculate craft makes it essential. While the film doesn’t let Clare off the hook for her racism and the importance is placed on her raised awareness of intersectionality, the screenwriting missteps certainly muddy the film’s clarity elsewhere.
Kent leaves us disheveled, broken to pick up the pieces. The Nightingale is an ambitious, condemning sophomore feature that demands not only humanity, but examination within ourselves on what evils we might perpetuate. Despite its intense violence, there is some degree of compassion – if not between its characters, then between Kent and us in the audience.