The Nightingale review: a beautiful, brutal slice of Australian history

Jennifer Kent’s follow up to the Babadook couldn’t be further from her debut, but it’s a fulfilling if tough watch nonetheless.

Woman with horse in The Nightingale
Photo: Transmission Films

After the success of her feature debut, the gorgeous, grief-soaked horror The Babadook, all eyes were on what Australian director Jennifer Kent would do next. Though it’s been reported that several major studios approached her for big ticket properties, instead she made The Nightingale, a difficult, furious, beautiful and ambitious movie that apologises to no one. It’s a willfully uncommercial prospect and it’s impossible to know who the intended audience is. But The Nightingale is somehow more powerful and audacious for it.

Set in 1825 in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), The Nightingale is a tale of colonial violence and hard won revenge as a young Irish convict girl, Clare – played by Aisling Franciosi – who, with her family, suffered an unspeakable attack at the hands of a group of British soldiers – pursues the men through the rough landscape aided by young Aboriginal man Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) who has experienced his own violent injustices.

Much has been made of the extreme sexual violence throughout the film – and let us be clear, it is brutal, punishing and frequent – though The Nightingale shouldn’t be mistaken for ‘a rape-revenge film’. By that we mean the violence is not titillating and no one’s going to be punching the air by the end; this isn’t an exploitation movie, though it is about exploitation in various forms. Indeed, despite the genre leanings of Kent’s first film, The Nightingale has more in common with something like Walkabout, The Road or, perversely, even Green Book, though we are in no way suggesting fans of these films are necessarily likely to also enjoy The Nightingale.

Instead, the central relationship is that of Billy and Clare, and not Clare and the execrable Lieutenant Hawkins – played with singular abhorrence by the excellent Sam Claflin. Despite her initial racism, Clare and Billy bond through extreme adversity in a way that proclaims that even in the worst possible situation imaginable; even with the worst of humanity destroying anything remotely good there is always some hope, some compassion, even if it’s nothing more than the touch of a hand. In this way The Nightingale is as emotionally raw and moving as it is upsetting. It’s a rollercoaster and an ordeal at times (and the 136 min runtime doesn’t make it any more palatable) but there is beauty here amongst the pain. That the film manages to touch the heart amongst such ugliness is much to the credit of its two leads, who bring nuance and warmth to characters you care deeply for by the film’s climax.

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The Nightingale is long, and it packs a lot in. The first act brutality is only a taste of things to come in a movie which screams in no uncertain terms of the utter cruelty and entitlement of the British soldiers, who see everything and everyone who isn’t a white male in a position of power as entirely there to serve them and completely expendable after. As well as women and children, Aborginal men and convicts are treated no better. Though this film deals with a particular period in Antipodean history – the Black War which saw the near annihilation of Tasmanian Aboriginals – it’s difficult not to feel some resonances now, which for some audiences might be a difficult pill to swallow (reports of “violently sexist and racist” reactions from the movie’s Venice Film Festival premiere seem to thankfully have been isolated).

The Nightingale is not without light and shade. Certain devastating set pieces are utterly indelible – one particular standout moment sees Clare having to feign colonialist superiority over Billy to save his life in one humiliating, harrowing and incredibly tense act – but the film has moments of humour, humility and kindness too and the untamed Tasmanian landscape is both wild and stunning.

Kent’s film is challenging but rewarding and crucially feels like she’s made the follow up she wanted to make, without compromise or concession. It’s unlikely to be a box office success, or a cultural phenomenon but we’re nonetheless glad it exists and marks her out as one of the most interesting new filmmakers around. So whether it’s the latest in the DC stable, The Babadook 2 or one of the two dramas she currently has slated, we can’t wait to see what she chooses to do next.

The Nightingale opens in UK cinemas on 29th November.

Rating:

4 out of 5