On its surface, The Nightingale is a by-the-numbers revenge tale: A woman is wronged, and she vows to hunt the perpetrated to the ends of the Earth and exact justice.
But in execution, The Nightingale is anything but routine. Yes, the hallmarks are familiar, but writer/director Jennifer Kent places particular emphasis on the nature of violence and the repercussions that ripple out like waves.
Kent’s previous film, The Babadook, is a modern-day horror fable about motherhood. The same can be said of The Nightingale, but this motherhood horror story is set in the past — 19th century Tasmania to be specific. Claire (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict working off her crime in a British penal colony. Life is far from easy, but it is manageable. That is, until Claire’s master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), attacks Claire and leaves her for dead.
Hawkins is a man devoid of compassion or empathy. He either takes what he wants by force or throws a hissy fit when it is withheld from him. The men around Hawkins act similarly. Though The Nightingale is historical fiction, Kent draws on the present for her depiction of male leaders.
Needing a guide to track Hawkins, Claire hires Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aborigine trying to stay alive and out-of-sight. Billy agrees to help Claire track Hawkins — first out of compensation, later out of camaraderie — and Billy and Claire’s relationship forms the movie’s lone bright spot. Not that The Nightingale is poorly made — it’s expertly crafted — but it’s a bleak movie, one of terrible violence and brutal despair. As one character expresses, “It’s a miserable world from top to bottom.”
To watch The Nightingale is come face to face with ugliness. And though doing so doesn’t always present obvious answers, it can contextualize personal problems. That’s not to say that The Nightingale should make you feel better about your situation — it might make you feel worse. And that’s not to say The Nightingale belittles the trivial frustrations of modern-day life. The Nightingale is a window to another time and another place, and the troubles of that time and that place. Sometimes it feels like the world is burning. It’s not. We’ve been through worse. Sometimes it feels like it can’t get any worse. It can, and it has. To borrow a line from Fight Club, “Where you’re at now, you can’t even imagine what the bottom will be like.”
And yet, here we still are. The world The Nightingale depicts is one where life is hard, and death is easy. It’s a miracle that anyone managed to survive. And to see violence leveled so casually against children, it’s a wonder that a younger generation managed to supplant their predecessor. Two centuries later, it’s still a wonder.
It’s these lingering thoughts that make The Nightingale memorable. Violence against women, against children, against races, against classes is commonplace in cinema. But rarely does that violence permeate and penetrate the fabric of the film. The violence against Claire lingers in her mind like a sharp nauseating odor. It all becomes part of the narrative, and Kent turns an act of exploitation to one of revelation. Claire will never again have a peaceful nights sleep. And we believe it. We feel it.
Written & Directed by Jennifer Kent
Produced by Kristina Ceyton, Steve Hutensky, Jennifer Kent, Bruna Papandrea
Starring: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie
IFC Films, Rated R, Running time 136 minutes, Opens August 16, 2019