The Nightingale (2018) ****

November 25th, 2019
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir. Jennifer Kent. Australia. 2018. 136′

Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent is best known for her chiller The Babadook. Here she turns her camera to focus on Australia’s colonial history with the premise: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”.

Nightingale is a sprawling and furious foray into the wilds Tasmania fuelled by a passion of a woman driven to defend her honour to the utmost. Aisling Franciosi brings vehemence and a surreal luminance as the central character Clare. And while Nightingale is certainly impassioned, lushly mounted and ambitious, it often gets waylaid by plotwists on the narrative front: from the outset the outcome is more or less predictable, although its odyssey into the heart of Australia’s colonial darkness certainly has us gasping for breath.

Anyone would be enraged if not extremely distraught to be subjected to gang rape and the killing of their baby and partner. And this is exactly what happens to Clare, forcing her to embark on a perilous and highly-charged quest for revenge taking as her guide a single-minded young aboriginal man. Their journey into the dark heart of Tasmania will be a perilous and eventful experience – and an extremely gruelling one for the audience. But what is undoubtedly a great premise for an epic saga, gets far too excited and over-heated plot-wise for its own good under Kent’s direction. And that’s a shame. Ultimately though, The Nightingale is a respectable auteurist enterprise.

Back in 1825, Tasmania was known as Van Diemen’s Land and that is where the young Irish woman fetches up after a career of what is now euphemistically known as stealing ‘to survive’. As a servant to the British occupying forces she is married to another ex-convict Aidan (Michael Sheasby), and has a tiny baby. But the man who has saved her – commanding officer Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) – also fancies his chances with her and after she perform the titular Irish folk song to entertain the troops one night, he calls her to his quarters where he brutally rapes her. But it doesn’t end there, and by the end of the evening her entire family is dead, and Clare is determined to get her own back on the feckless man and his vicious collaborators Sergeant Ruse (Damon Herriman) and Ensign Jago (Harry Greenwood), following them to a their new posting in the town of Launceston, where Hawkins hopes to get a promotion.

Aboriginal Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) is not keen on the idea of accompanying a young white woman, but the oddly-matched couple eventually set off through the dense forest, their spirited exchanges fuelling what is otherwise a predicable journey. Their accompanying animals will invariably come off worst, along with their English overlords, who are invariably depicted as the same one-dimentional arch villains we will soon meet in Black 47 (2018). 

Nightingale triumphs as a robust cocktail of female oppression interwoven with anti-colonial overtones and laced with a folkloric twist (not to mention the Gaelic and the Palawi kani banter). Clare’s rendition of the ballad ‘Nightingale’ and other melodies is tunefully mellow in stark contrast to the ultra-brutal violence that eventually becomes as tedious as the repetitive plot reversals, and have the same affect as commercial breaks in subtracting dramatic heft from what could have been a succinct and infinitely more immersive historical drama, despite the rather trite denouement.

Along with terrific performances from the lead duo, Radek Ladczuk’s camerawork does Nightingale proud – all those vigorously verdant forests and burgeoning bushes giving way to the vibrant lushness of the Tasmanian widescreen landscapes. The Nightingale is a worthwhile exploration of a lesser known, but horrific episode in Antipodean colonial history. MT

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 29 NOVEMBER 2019

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