Sundance 2019 Review: The Nightingale is a haunting and unforgettable masterpiece.
Jennifer Kent blew audiences away when she premiered The Babadook at Sundance back in 2014. I remember attending the premiere and being so tired as I entered the theater a few minutes before midnight. However, as soon as the film began, I suddenly got a jolt of energy, and my eyes were fixated on the screen for 94-minutes. As the end credits began to roll, I knew that Jennifer Kent was a filmmaker destined for greatness.
Flash forward five years later, Jennifer Kent returns to Sundance with The Nightingale. Unlike most, I didn’t read anything about the film before seeing it. All I knew about the project was that Jennifer Kent wrote and directed it. I didn’t even know that Sam Claflin was in it until I watched the film. I am so glad that I went into this film knowing next to nothing because I feel like it made the entire experience that much more effective.
The Nightingale is a period drama that doubles as a revenge thriller. It follows a young Irish convict named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) whose life is controlled by her master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). As Clare attempts to live a normal life with her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and her newborn baby girl, she cannot escape Hawkins no matter how hard she tries. Hawkins is a man of power and one who uses that power to control, take advantage of and abuse others. One day, Aidan notices that Clare has been abused and proceeds to take a stand about the treatment of his wife. This confrontation spirals out of control and leads to a horrendous crime that will forever change Clare’s life.
There have been a lot of films that have explored William Congreve’s famous quote, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” but until now, no film has ever been as effective in bringing to life what those words truly meant. Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is a brutal and unsettling film that is not for the faint of heart. Within the first 30 minutes, there are several scenes of rape and disturbing violence. While these scenes are not overly graphic or full of gratuitous nudity, they are incredibly hard to watch because Kent requires the viewer to imagine what is going on instead of graphically exploiting the victims. The way that Kent handles these situations is perfectly executed because as a viewer, we are forced to watch these horrendous acts unfold while the camera remains rather still on a close-up shot of a victim’s face.
Clare’s journey to track down Hawkins in order to get her revenge proves to be no easy task. Clare must travel through the rugged wilderness without knowing what dangers lie ahead. Clare hires an aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who, despite their differences, must work together to survive. While trusting each another isn’t exactly easy, Clare and Billy begin to slowly bond after sharing stories about their lives and their hatred of England. Clare and Billy are equally traumatized by their pasts and by talking to each other, they slowly begin to learn how their lives aren’t much different and that they have been deeply impacted by hatred and violence. Their past is what serves as their motivation to continue on this journey with the hope of moving beyond their nightmares and being free.
All of the characters in The Nightingale are flawed which only adds to the realness of this incredible story. Even though the majority of the film is centered around Clare, we still get to see how even as a victim, she is close-minded and is prejudiced. Granted, Clare becomes more aware of her words and actions in the second and third act, but it is that natural progression of seeing the character grew over time that makes the story so authentic and powerful. As Clare learns more about Billy’s background and witnesses certain acts of violence, she begins to open her eyes (and mind) to her preconceived thoughts and assumptions. Billy has a similar journey as well when he discovers that Clare isn’t like all the other white people he has come in contact with while being held captive in England. Billy learns that Clare has also had a difficult past and that they are both fighting against similar injustices.
I must applaud Jennifer Kent for making a period film that isn’t afraid to tackle multiple issues that are sadly are still relevant to today. While the film took place in 1825, the themes being explored include racism, sexism, segregation, abuse of power, social class, and toxic masculinity. What I appreciate about a lot of independent filmmakers is that they aren’t afraid to tell stories that aren’t necessarily happy but are instead important. The Nightingale serves as a cautionary tale that won’t have audiences leaving the theater smiling but rather thinking. It is a conversation starter that fully embraces all of its heavy themes and never shies away from being gritty and raw.
Aisling Franciosi’s performance as Clare is absolutely extraordinary. This is a role that is complicated and complex. There are multiple layers to what makes Clare tick, and Franciosi embodies all of them. In her performance, Franciosi manages to convey the perfect amount of sadness, stubbornness, fear, pain, and anger. Even though Clare isn’t always the most likable person, you can’t help but stand behind her every step of the way. While I am aware that Franciosi has acted in multiple television series before this role, she never has never had to carry an entire show or film. She does that as Clare and is so unbelievably good at it. While watching this performance, I assumed that Franciosi must have played the lead in several times before but shockingly this is her first time in a lead role, and she knocked it out of the park. This is a career-making performance and one that I hope will get Franciosi more leading roles in the near future.
If you are like me, you probably never thought you could hate Sam Claflin because he always plays that lovable nice guy that somehow manages to die in every other film. Well, I hate to break it to you, but Jennifer Kent has managed to make Claflin play a character that is so deplorable and vile that you may never be able to look at Sam Claflin the same way ever again. His performance is so deeply disturbing because he plays a character that shows zero remorse for his actions. He rapes and kills without a care in the world. Claflin’s performance as Hawkins is some next level acting. I honestly can’t believe that I was watching the same guy who was in Their Finest because he transforms into a man that not only abuses his power but one that doesn’t have a single redeemable quality about him.
The supporting cast is great all around. Baykali Ganambarr’s performance as Billy serves as the perfect companion to Clare. The conversations between Clare and Billy help shape their past and build them up as characters. There are multiple actors who act alongside Claflin throughout the film, and they are all fantastic, especially Damon Herriman who plays the character, Ruse. Herriman’s take on Ruse is a lot like Claflin’s take on Hawkins. He is a man who doesn’t seem to acknowledge how his actions have impacted and hurt others. Ruse in a lot of ways seems to be a man who looks up to Hawkins and wants to follow in his footsteps. This makes the character somewhat even more disturbing than that of Hawkins because he doesn’t see his actions as a negative but rather things that he inspires to replicate.
The Nightingale is a haunting and unforgettable masterpiece and one that solidifies Jennifer Kent as a masterclass filmmaker and storyteller. I don’t think that any review can mentally, physically, or emotionally prepare you for what Kent has brought to life with this film. The Nightingale is a very difficult watch but packs quite an emotional punch. It should not be missed and is sure to be one of the most talked about films of 2019.