‘The Nightingale’ is a disturbingly brutal meditation on revenge from ‘Babadook’ filmmaker – AZCentral

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

Unflinching in her gaze of 1825 Tasmania, filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to 2014’s “The Babadook” relentlessly beats the viewer into heartache and frustration as a pair of unlikely allies navigate the wilderness looking for a shred of solace. From the first act alone, viewers are shown that brutality is the main artery of a movie gushing with blood.

Clocking in at more than two hours, “The Nightingale” slogs through the bush hoping its audience is resilient enough to witness its conclusion with a clenched fist instead of a deep sigh.

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Clare (a heartbreaking Aisling Franciosi), the titular nightingale, is an Irish convict who’s completed a seven year-sentence in Tasmania for theft. She’s desperate for her overdue release but it’s left in the duplicitous clutches of her commander, Lt. Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Under his charge, she’s carted to the barracks as a singing reminder of home for lecherous, drunken soldiers who have no interest in her voice. As a mother and wife, she escapes her own personal hell in the lullaby she whispers to her baby and in the eyes of her husband.

Where Kent steps into a particularly thorny patch of brush is when she parallels Clare’s experience as an indentured servant to the plight of colonized natives whose tribes are being eradicated.

As the heroine of the film, Clare’s is the gaze through which we see this fecund land and the possibility it has for her own freedom because she, too, is a colonizer. But she, herself, is looked down on and tortured by English men for being a prisoner, being Irish, and being a woman. The sole Aboriginal woman who appears in the film is onscreen long enough to only add to the barbarity colonizers inflicted on native women but not much else. 

Clare’s companion, an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (played by radiant newcomer Baykali Ganambarr) was orphaned in his early life and taken in by the English to learn their ways. Clare recruits him to help her enact her revenge but attempts to seize the little power she has over Billy by calling him “boy,” pointing a gun at him and having little regard for the danger she puts him into. 

“Welcome to the world, fully of misery, top to bottom,” Clare tells Billy during one of their many spats. His motivations to stick around with her remain rather opaque but Kent telegraphs that they’re meant to bond through their collective trauma.

Initially appearing a hair more refined than his troops, Claflin’s ambitious Hawkins is an atrocious antagonist who only becomes more reprehensible as the movie continues. There’s little humanity in him other than a sense of embarrassment and entitlement that keeps him going. 

The most compelling scene of the film is when a benevolent old man encounters the pair and gives them shelter, even inviting Billy to sit at the table with him, his wife, and Clare. Billy recoils and vibrates with resigned rage after witnessing the preceding atrocities where he saw three peers murdered mere feet from him.

“This is my country, this my home,” Billy weeps as the old man just sips his stew in silence. The sheer horror watching that man’s stone-faced complacency with the status quo to Billy’s cries is one of the few in this film that isn’t wracked with violence.

But it’s just as cruel. 

‘The Nightingale,’ 3.5 stars

Director: Jennifer Kent.

Cast: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin and Baykali Ganambarr.

Rating: Rated R for strong violent and disturbing content including rape, language throughout, and brief sexuality. 

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