Film review ‘THE NIGHTINGALE’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

In her breakthrough horror film, The Babadook, writer director Jennifer Kent used a supernatural menace to represent the threat and anxiety experienced by a single mother played by Esse Davis. Her latest film, the gruelling historical drama, The Nightingale, sees a woman and an indigenous man confronted by a more realistic threat in the brutal racist patriarchy of a British military outpost in 1820’s Tasmania. Kent uses this setting to tell a powerful, confronting and heartbreaking, if uneven story of revenge and painful self-discovery.

The Nightingale is on one level a revenge parable as freed Irish convict Clare (Game of Thrones Aisling Franciosi) rides into the foreboding Tasmanian wilderness in pursuit of Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) the man who had repeatedly raped her and subjected her family to horrendous violence. As well as a story of personal vengeance, the film is also a fierce commentary on Australia’s tragic past. To find her way in the forest, Clare employs young indigenous man Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) as her guide and the journey sees them confront not only the unforgiving terrain, personal fears and Hawkins himself but also the appalling impact of white settlement on Australia’s first people.

This is an impressively brave and confronting film as Kent pulls no punches in showing the brutality of the era and appalling treatment of indigenous people. Apparently, there were walkouts at early screenings but while the violence is confronting it’s not gratuitous and the film has apparently been endorsed by Tasmanian Aboriginal elders as an accurate depiction of what took place.

This film could also be described as an Australian western, one that draws on classic Hollywood westerns such as The Searchers (it even references the iconic door scene) as well as violent Australian period dramas like The Proposition and The Tracker. Primarily, it’s about indigenous and white relations in Australia, not just in the shocking approach taken by the military and settlers toward Aboriginal people but in Clare and Billy’s relationship. Clare is initially wary of Billy and at least in her language is as racist as the murderous people she pursues. Their slow reconciliation is predictable but still affecting.

The film benefits from exceptional lead performances. As Clare, Franciosi convincingly shifts from downtrodden victim to relentless avenger. She is at times ferocious but still remains empathetic. Baykali Ganambarr is also terrific making Billy the film’s conscience as he guides and defends but also questions Clare. Sam Claflin is appropriately detestable as Hawkins although he occasionally chomps on the scenery as the crazed villain. Damon Herriman is convincingly vile as the outpost’s Sergeant but his character lacks nuance and at times he looks as if he’s rehearsing for a role as a hillbilly in a Deliverance remake.

While a potent and often moving film, The Nightingale is not without its flaws. Some of the film’s impact is dulled by slightly underwhelming production values including rifles and pistols that sound like pop guns. Also, some scenes feel too static with characters reacting in a leisurely fashion to gunfire and stabbings. The film also lacks the polish and dynamism Warwick Thornton brought to the similarly themed Sweet Country. Even with these quibbles, it would be very difficult for anyone to ignore this film’s visceral force or doubt the film makers’ courage and commitment to exposing a disturbing part of our heritage.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Drama.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Jennifer Kent.

Release date: 29th Aug 2019.

Running time: 136 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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