Opens: August 29
Genre: Historical drama
Duration: 136 minutes
Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent made quite an international impact with her debut feature The Babadook, an imaginative and highly original slice of horror based on a mother-child relationship, but for her follow-up she has switched genre. The Nightingale is a realistic historical drama, though its darkness and intensity show Kent’s horror leanings are never really absent, merely given a different context.
On one level, this tale, set in the wilds of colonial Tasmania (then Van Diemen’s Land), is a starkly powerful drama with an anti-racist and feminist bent, but on another it’s a rape revenge tale that evokes horror via the sheer intensity and repetition of its violence.
Married Irish convict and mother Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is working as a domestic drudge for the British when she is importuned to entertain the troops with her melodious voice (hence her nickname, The Nightingale). After the British officer in command (Sam Claflin) and one of his men (Damon Herriman) commit disturbing violence against Clare and a family member, they leave for Launceston the next day and she sets out to follow them through the forests bent on revenge (though Kent has a surprise or two waiting in that department).
On the journey further brutality is in store but at the same time Clare and her companion, an Aboriginal tracker (dancer Baykali Ganambarr – terrific, as is Franciosi), gradually feel each other out and forge an understanding based around their common victimhood under the British. These beautifully played scenes, which are politically blunt but avoid the trap of awkwardness, are the film’s heart, balancing its cruelty.
Despite this, there’s no denying the film is grim, even compared to other exposés of colonial violence such as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and more recently, Sweet Country. But life in the penal colony was no picnic and historical events as bad and even worse happened here – a sobering thought.