Review: The Nightingale Sings Brutal Ballad

Aaron Neuwirth reviews The Nightingale, a brutal thriller from writer/director Jennifer Kent, her follow-up film to The Babadook.

For all the praise I can heap on the classic American western, I find a similar fascination with the revisionist and neo-westerns that have come since. The Nightingale goes a step further, given its setting. Much like John Hillcoat’s 2005 film, The Proposition, an Australian western, The Nightingale strips away much of the glamor laid over the drama to be dealt with in the American West to get to the brutal heart of what is taking place elsewhere. Writer/director Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to her breakout horror feature, The Babadook, is hardly inclined to show any sense of beauty in this period. Instead, we see the hellish nature of the Tasmanian wilderness, which includes the outsiders who helped create that environment, and the way revenge takes its toll as well.

We open with a woman, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), performing chores at an outpost, while holding her baby, singing to keep him calm, and brandishing a knife as well. What’s the blade for? There’s an implied sense of danger that comes with her surroundings. But does that have to do with the Aboriginal people British soldiers find so much contempt for or the real monsters we learn about? Unlike The Babadook, The Nightingale is not so much a horror film, as it is a bleak adventure-thriller with lots of horrific imagery.

As we quickly learn, Clare is an Irish convict who has been brought to 1825 Tasmania to serve her sentence. Her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), refuses to release her from his charge. Clare’s husband (Michael Sheasby) does not take well to the mistreatment, only for circumstances to dramatically change for everyone. Soon enough, Clare finds herself pursuing Hawkins, as he makes his way to the north in hopes of a promotion. To stay after him, Clare enlists the help of an Aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). The two are not inclined to get along, but there’s much worse evil out there and revenge to be had.

Using the more box-like Academy ratio and a muted color palette, there’s no mistaking this journey as a romanticized take on the era. There’s an immediacy to what is presented, thanks to the framing. In turn, that allows the horrific acts to sink in on a deeper level. With nowhere to hide, the viewer is pushed into the struggles faced by virtually everyone that isn’t white, a man, and holding on to some level of power. Westerns have always allowed for subjective takes on the values of a current social climate. The Nightingale is certainly no different.

But does the power of this level of allegory come through due to the portrayal of such extreme violence? That’s the line Kent walks in an age where trigger warnings are seemingly more common than films challenging what an audience is capable of handling on a visceral level. Still, I can be empathetic to those not willing to go along for a journey that pushes people into terrifying situations spearheaded by the despicable actions of awful men in power. At the same time, while the film piles various atrocities onto the story, it knows how to deliver a sense of satisfaction through subversion.

Whether or not the satisfaction of revenge is satiated for audiences, plenty is going on in the way we come to know the main characters and find other ways to let this story resonate, outside of the urgent messaging sure to stick as well. It’s not just that we follow Clare and Billy on a dangerous adventure, but the way they become a team reliant on each other, what it is about their history that makes them compelling, and what it is about them as marginalized characters that have turned them into such a threat for a “ruling” class.

Having gotten a strong breakout performance from Essie Davis in The Babadook, it’s not surprising to see Kent deliver once again. Both Fanciosi and Ganambarr are terrific here. Wisely moving beyond the idea of innocents being caught up in something so harsh, we are watching survivors being further stripped of everything, only to find common ground, parallel traumas, and an understanding of what it takes to keep moving forward. If the film weren’t so bleak, you could call this a road movie about two unlikely friends. Regardless, both performances bring their all here, concluding with a sense of exhaustion that is reflective of the film’s extended run time.

Claflin is effectively wicked. Stripping away the veneer that positions him as one of the go-to castings for a bland male lead, you have a figure who gets away with all his misdeeds constantly, baring his teeth whenever fitting to further highlight the awful nature of those seeing fit to abuse their power. Claflin’s character is joined by a couple of other repugnant men, including Damon Herriman, an Australian actor whose actions are far crueler than anything found in his cameo as Charles Manson in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood.

In recreating the era and the mood required to show “The Black War” between the colonizers and the original inhabitants, there’s some striking cinematography at play. Tension is heightened thanks to precise editing choices, and a subtle, atmospheric score by Jed Kurzel. Imagery holds onto a sense of dread due to shots of bodies hanging from trees, repeated motifs speaking to Clare’s grief, and other uncompromising angles for this story.

With the framework of a revisionist western, a plot that recalls various team-up films, and a deliberate choice to emphasize the brutality in a world where the justice system has no authority, The Nightingale makes for a gripping and draining viewing experience. At the same time, it’s not without a sense of hope and compassion, even in the darkest of times. The film speaks to actualities and does so effectively thanks to the performances and filmmaking on display. Still, emotions will undoubtedly vary, depending on the viewer. Given what occurs, as well as what can be taken out of the experience, hopefully, a different sort of justice and understanding rings true, in addition to the violence.

8
Great
Written by
Aaron is a movie fanatic and loves talking about such things…a lot. He is from Orange County, California, but earned a degree or two at UC Santa Barbara. He describes himself as a film reviewer, writer, podcaster, video game player, comic book reader, disc golfer, and a lefty. His mind is full of film knowledge and random trivia, but he is always open to learning more, whether it’s through box office stats, reviewing Blu-rays from The Criterion Collection or simply hearing first hand from filmmakers and others about various productions and behind-the-scenes tidbits.

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