The Nightingale is a tough hang. There’s no getting around it. This is a tale, written and directed by The Babadook writer-director Jennifer Kent, of revenge in the truly brutal environs of mid-nineteenth-century Australia. It’s brutal in every sense of the word, and the deeds being avenged by the central character, Clare (Aisling Fraciosi, fantastic), are uniquely horrible to watch.
This is a pivotal scene the viewer sees coming a mile away. Clare has paid her dues in Australia as an Irish convict, but British Army Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), literally half a world away from Britain, plays with his power and toys with her and refuses to release her. She has a husband and a baby, and the husband (Michael Sheesby) gets particularly impatient with Hawkins, at his own peril.
I won’t get into detail about what Hawkins and his men ultimately due to Clare’s entire family, except to say, however horrible you might imagine, I don’t know — double it. When these British soldiers barge into Clare’s house, the baby crying loudly, it’s already long been clear that none of these poor souls are going to fare well. And Jennifer Kent stages a lot of the brutality onscreen, which doesn’t feel like sensationalism as much as defiance, a challenge. It’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the history of brutality in British colonialism.
Of course, it’s very difficult to watch, and so is plenty of the things Clare later does in her quest for revenge, particularly when she catches up to the first of Hawkins’s men who were in her cabin.
By that point, Hawkins and several men are already well into the Australian bush, with an aboriginal guide. He is seeking secure the promotion to captaincy denied him by a superior officer, and beat him to the town where he can go over his head to get it. Clare, with truly nothing left to lose, hires her own aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr, a magnetic screen presence), to catch up with them. She does this despite her own conditioning of distrust of black natives.
And so it goes, The Nightingale becoming a dark, toxic road trip movie, only the road is barely used paths, the vehicle is a single horse, and the travelers are two characters subject to the worst horrors of historical oppression, gradually learning about and empathizing with each other. Truly, if there is any villain in this movie, it is not just Hawkins, but what he and his entire troupe represents: the white man. Of course, putting it that way will surely put off conservative crybabies from seeing this movie — but, let’s be real: they would never go out of their way to see this movie anyway.
And honestly, it’s so brutal in so many parts, plenty more open-minded people would not be blamed for wanting to avoid it either. It could be argued that a movie like this commands attention to illustrate how colonialism built the entire world we live in today, but who wants to hear that argument? The flip side, another argument for giving this unforgettable film its due attention, is that the act, and even the quest, for revenge does not give Clare — or Billy, for that matter — the precise kind of catharsis they’re looking for. Some traumatic experiences leave you fucked no matter what you do about them. Or at least they did in nineteenth-century Australia. There didn’t seem to be a lot of therapists around at the time.
If nothing else, The Nightingale is an unflinching look at the unspeakable horrors that allowed for the creature comforts we enjoy today. Jennifer Kent doesn’t even overtly contextualize it that way; it’s just what it made me think of. This is a pretty straightforward character study in a period setting, with a unique telling that leaves a lasting impression. I won’t soon forget it.