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In The Wake Of Horrific Brutality, Revenge Served White-Hot: 'The Nightingale'

<em></em>"Aisling Franciosi gives a performance of trembling brilliance as Clare, an Irish convict ... at a remote British military outpost in Tasmania."
Kasia Ladczuk
Sundance Institute
"Aisling Franciosi gives a performance of trembling brilliance as Clare, an Irish convict ... at a remote British military outpost in Tasmania."

Jennifer Kent's historical revenge drama The Nightingale is a film we're not accustomed to, and one we'll not soon forget. Set in early 19th-century colonial Australia, it depicts acts of horrific brutality. Yet it's not a brutal movie. Scenes of murder, rape, and enslavement unfold in front of the camera not just to shock you, but to confound you; to make you think about the fates of nations forged in violence and cruelty, and of the humans at the receiving end who must endure all of it.

Aisling Franciosi gives a performance of trembling brilliance as Clare, an Irish convict and young mother being held along with her husband (Michael Sheasby) and infant at a remote British military outpost in Tasmania. We meet Clare as she's brought forward to sing a beautiful ballad for a visiting officer, a rare moment of uplift in her life before her own commander, Hawkins (Sam Claflin of The Hunger Games), has his way with her behind closed doors. And this casual violation extends to Clare's very freedom, too: She's already served out her seven-year sentence, yet Hawkins refuses to release her. That standoff culminates in The Nightingale's call-to-action event, which may be one of the most disturbing sequences ever committed to film. It's an outburst of evil that leaves Clare barely alive, sets off her insatiable urge for revenge, and stakes a new benchmark for acceptability in cinematic depictions of historical atrocity.

Here, then, is where an unstoppable force meets an immovable object — or to put it another way, where a spoiler meets a trigger. As the filmmakers have requested that "the specific nature of the brutality ... not be revealed to future viewers," suffice it to say Kent depicts the kinds of actions we generally like to keep to a parenthetical in our history books. And amid a growing critical consensus that rape scenes in general are "lazy writing," a cheap and easy way to generate sympathy in an audience, The Nightingale's insistence on bringing us to dark places is going to upset a lot of people (and in fact already has). It goes even further by giving its perpetrators recognizable qualities: The men fleeing their deeds are deeply needy and insecure and have trouble processing what they've done, far from the confidently monstrous type we're used to seeing in movie versions of predators.

Kent may not be able to justify her artistic choices to everyone, but she doesn't have to. The Nightingale works because it grants its protagonist respect and dignity beyond mere victimhood, and frames her pain in both personal and political terms to make sure her despair serves a larger purpose within the film's themes. What Franciosi does here is remarkable, creating a woman who can't temper her rage, and who is often far from clear-eyed as a result; midway through the film, as she comes upon her first taste of what revenge might look like, there is no joy or catharsis in the moment. Just raw despair. When was the last time a movie dealing with violence against women mustered this much technical skill to communicate the emotional crisis of the woman at its heart?

As Clare treks into the woods with only a shotgun and a horse, she reluctantly joins up with an Indigenous Australian tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr, a dancer and first-time actor who brings a bright, offbeat energy to his role). Their partnership could have easily neutered the film by turning it into a buddy action flick, or a social-issues snoozer where each oppressed figure learns a little something about the other (Clare begins the film as a virulent racist before gradually softening). But instead, the duo's bond — cemented in a slow recognition of both personal and national trauma, as they defiantly share elements of their cultures that the British haven't yet taken away — becomes the emotional heart of Kent's work. Down in the dirt, surrounded by death and following a trail of the "white devil" savagery Hawkins' crew has inflicted on anyone unfortunate enough to cross their path, Clare and Billy become the only voices of humanity in sight.

Kent's first movie, the 2014 horror hit The Babadook, inspired Internet goofballs to turn its eponymous paper cut-out spook into an ironic queer icon. But The Nightingale is impossible to watch ironically, which is a testament to Kent's remarkable skills as a filmmaker and her refusal to be pigeonholed into easy tonal registers. In contrast to the effects-heavy business of The Babadook, her style here is markedly patient and composed, placing close-ups of Fanciosi's or Ganambarr's anguished faces in the middle of a striking 4:3 aspect ratio and frequently drawing our gaze upward to the swaying forests and jagged cliffs that mock the human horrors unfolding below them. There are moments that feel reminiscent of Tarkovsky or Herzog, granting mythic grandeur to a land that refuses to be contained by human greed and remains indifferent to their suffering.

Yes, the film is grim, but it builds a space where that darkness can serve a purpose. As the action picks up and the characters barrel toward their final confrontations beyond the bush, the bloodshed takes on a ghostly hue, like that of a bad spirit finally being expunged. Where does the moral responsibility for our forefathers' bloodlust fall? The Nightingale suggests that it falls with their victims, the only ones who know what it feels like to survive them.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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