The Nightingale (2018): An Uncompromising Examination Of The Evils Of Colonialism

The lone woman in competition here at the Venice Film Festival. Jennifer Kent brings her Tasmanian gothic tale The Nightingale to the Lido, a violent and disturbing revenger tragedy of stark pessimism.

“Welcome to the world, boy,” Clare (Aisling Franciosi) tells Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). “Full of misery from top to bottom.” And Clare should know. It’s 1825 and she’s a young Irish mother with a small baby. But also a convict in Van Diemen’s Land, whose fate resides in the hands of the sadistic British officer Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin).

She sings her Irish songs of being a nightingale for the ragtag band of alcoholic soldiers. But her life and her family are destroy one night when Hawkins commits a terrible crime against her family.

Left for dead, Clare revives and, enlisting Aboriginal tracker Billy along the way, goes after Hawkins who has set off overland for a town. Where he hopes to receive a promotion to captain. The journey is fraught with dangers as any whites. Who they meet are incline to kill Billy on sight and Clare herself is in danger of being rape and kill.

It doesn’t help that they lose their provisions and barely trust each other. But as the journey goes on through hardship and a mutual contempt for the English – “Not poor me, bastard Britain,” Billy says – a friendship slowly begins to emerge.

Kent provide one of the best debuts of recent years with her parenting horror movie The Babadook.

Expectations were therefore understandably high for her follow-up. But somewhere along the way the The Nightingale – like its protagonists – gets lost in the woods. Radek Ladczuk’s cinematography brings out both the beauty and the brutality of the land and the people who inhabit it. But as the film drifts through dream sequences and diversions, the dramatic power of the chase fizzles in the damp of the woods.

Kent is justly incense by this period in Tasmania’s history. Which saw the indigenous populace systematically kill and move in an example of ethnic cleansing that was tantamount to genocide.

But the villainous are so villainous – Hawkins is accompany by a similarly vile Sgt. Ruse (Damon Herriman) – and their deeds so unremittingly awful that the brutality becomes numbing. The appearance of a gruffly kind farmer suggests she feels the need to provide a glimmer of hope in the awful darkness.

And yet this is a powerful and disturbing film. The true history of the period unfortunately justifies a grim view of human nature. The performances of both Franciosi and Ganambarr are extremely strong, as common cause is finally made.

The Nightingale’s distinct aim is to convey, through carnage, that violence begets violence. Hate passes on. People learn slowly. If Clare struggles to harm someone, Billy will jump in and finish the job, and vice versa. When Hawkins demands that a pre-pubescent boy murder an aboriginal woman, the bitter lessons in inheritance are made clear. The pain doesn’t stop. The Nightingale has the nerve to say uncomfortable truths about the very blackest parts of men’s hearts.

Tasmania in the 1820s, as depict in “The Nightingale,” is a ladder of cruelty.

Nearly every human relationship is define by domination and subjugation. A system of absolute violence organize under the banner of civilization and the British flag. In the rough settlement where the movie begins, British soldiers rule over convicts who have been “transport” from England and Ireland. The soldiers, abuse and humiliate by their superior officers. They are also engag in a brutal war of conquest with the Indigenous Tasmanians, referre to as “the blacks.”

Jennifer Kent, who wrote and direct this rigorous, relentless film, surveys this landscape with clear-eyed fury. “The Nightingale” is a revenge story, one that draws on familiar Victorian Gothic and Hollywood western tropes. It’s the tale of a wrong woman, and of white men in hostile territory.

The Nightingale is so gorgeously, urgently shot, so pressing and important, that a film set in 1820s Tasmania feels as current and present as possible. It’s a breathtaking success by a director who could have made anything after the success of her first horror feature, and who decide to make a bloody but contemplative period piece with no easy answers.


Rating: R (for strong violent and disturbing content including rape, language throughout, and brief sexuality)
Genre: Drama
Directed By: Jennifer Kent
Stars: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr
Written By: Jennifer Kent
In Theaters: Aug 2, 2019 Limited
Runtime: 137 minutes
Studio: IFC Films

Adam Graham
“The Nightingale” dials into unadulterated rage, while also telling a story of tolerance and understanding. It’s a balancing act Kent manages gracefully, and “The Nightingale” is a story that’s not easy to shake.

Sandra Hall
One of the most powerful films yet seen about the country’s colonial foundation and the cruelties that were an indelible part of it.

Amy Nicholson
The pleasure of this movie is slowly watching [Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr] find their common ground, and Jennifer Kent doesn’t make it easy for either of them in any step of the way.

Garrett Mitchell
“The Nightingale” is an alarmingly bleak and simmering revenge tale woven together with unrepentant violence and continual suffering under colonial and patriarchal oppression.

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