Time: 153 Minutes
Age Rating: Rape, violence, cruelty & offensive language
Aisling Franciosi as Clare
Sam Claflin as Hawkins
Baykali Ganambarr as Billy
Damon Herriman as Ruse
Harry Greenwood as Jago
Ewen Leslie as Goodwin
Charlie Shotwell as Eddie
Michael Sheasby as Aidan
Director: Jennifer Kent
Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict, chases a British officer (Sam Claflin) through the rugged Tasmanian wilderness and is bent on revenge for a terrible act of violence the man committed against her family. On the way, she enlists the services of Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), who is marked by trauma from his own violence-filled past.
Although it didn’t feature on my most anticipated movies of 2019 list, The Nightingale was a movie I’ve been keeping my eye on for some time. The main reason is that it’s the next film by Jennifer Kent, who directed The Babadook, which was one of my favourite horror movies in recent years. I knew of the general plot, knew that Sam Claflin was in it, and I saw a few images. However, that’s all I knew going in, outside of the controversy that it’s been generating. I was lucky enough to catch this movie at the NZIFF (the first movie I’ve actually seen at a film festival actually). The Nightingale is yet another movie that’s ‘not for everyone’ and I wasn’t certain how I’d feel about it, but I ended up loving it.
The Nightingale is not an easy watch, for a number of reasons. First of all to note is that this movie is quite long at about 2 hours and 15 minutes. It’s a ‘slow burn’ I guess, but when watching this in the cinema, I never felt bored, I was riveted with everything that was happening, even with some of the more unpleasant aspects. This is also a very disturbing movie to say the least. The first 20-30 minutes might be enough to make you want to stop watching, and I wouldn’t even blame you if you did. You’ve likely heard about all the violent rape scenes and the like. I’m not going into too much depth but I’ll just say they’re just as brutal as the headlines have made it. However they don’t feel like they’re there just to provoke a reaction in the audience. Even outside of the rape scenes, there are plenty of moments that are hard to watch. Although The Nightingale starts off being a sort of rape-revenge thriller (it’s not a revenge fantasy at all), it expands to being much more than that, as it also focusses on the treatment of Australia’s aboriginal people by the British. It’s brutally realistic as well, none of the on screen violence is really satisfying or entertaining in the slightest, just rather grim and senseless (in a good way though). The movie could’ve been completely depressing and beating you over the head with it just to prove how terrible it was back then, but Kent manages to infuse it with a little bit of empathy and depth, mainly between the main characters of Clare and Billy and how they develop over the course of the movie. The last act without spoiling anything is a little slower than what you’d expect it to be considering it’s a revenge movie, and I can see some people being not really that satisfied with the way things go, especially with the ending. Personally I liked how they ended it.
The acting is generally good but the performances from 3 particular actors are outstanding and are among the highlights of 2019 actingwise. Outside of her brief appearances on Game of Thrones, I haven’t really seen Aisling Franciosi in much of anything, however she’s really fantastic here as the lead character. It’s definitely a challenging role but she really sells her character well. Baykali Ganabarr is also great as Billy, an aboriginal tracker that Clare reluctantly hires to track down Hawkins (Sam Claflin). The two characters start off really not liking each other at all but you see their relationship grow over the course of the movie. The two of them was one of the highlights of the movie, and both actors really worked well together. Sam Claflin here is in a completely different role as one of the most despicable characters I’ve seen in a movie, and that’s saying a lot. Here he plays a British officer, whose violent actions against Clare make him her target for the movie. He could’ve been a one dimensional villain, and indeed there really aren’t any redeemable qualities to him. Yet he feels uncomfortably human and like a real person, and Claflin definitely made the character work disturbingly well.
Jennifer Kent as usual is great at directing, and it’s a much different movie than her last. Here she got to work on a much larger scale, she really places you in the time period, setting and location of Tasmania in the 1800s. None of the locations are fake, they really did shoot in the forests of Tasmania, and it really does feel authentic throughout. No doubt it would’ve been tedious having to film there, but it was well worth it. It’s a stunning looking movie, and one of the first things you’ll notice is that it’s filmed in a 4:3 format. Now I’m not exactly certain why it was filmed like this, but something about that just really worked and fitted with much of the movie, it really helped increase the claustrophobia and make the film feel even more uncomfortable. While it’s not a full on horror movie (at the very least not the same type as The Babadook), there are a few dream scenes that are very much horror like.
Brutal, harrowing and uncompromising, The Nightingale is among my favourite films of the year. The performances from Franciosi, Ganabarr and Claflin were phenomenal, Jennifer Kent’s direction was great, and while the experience could be rough at points, it was absolutely worth the watch. With that said, it’s probably not a movie that I’ll be watching again for a while at least. It’s definitely not going to work for everyone, and so I should emphasise that if you go into the movie, keep your expectations in check. As it stands for me, it’s yet another fantastic film from Kent and I can’t wait to see what she does next.