Midway through a Sundance screening of Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, the film had to be paused. Moments ago on the screen, one character had taken a furious vengeance on another. Flesh was pierced, bones were shattered, and the sounds of a life audibly, and brutally, going out were heard. It is not an exaggeration to say that 911 was called after a fellow moviegoer had at least fainted following this sequence. He may have been the most prudent among us.
As Kent’s follow-up to the cult horror darling The Babadook, The Nightingale is an unforgiving experience and likely the most intense one I’ve had in a movie theater since The Revenant four years ago. Like that film, Nightingale is technically a harrowing period piece as opposed to a strict horror, but there may be nothing so horrific as the film’s unrelenting depiction of man’s (specifically a white man’s) capacity for violence and destruction. And its vicious examination of that ugliness, particularly in regards to women, will not be for everyone… including myself.
Set with sparse context in the earliest days of colonizing Tasmania, The Nightingale follows Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) on her long journey into night. Given slightly preferential treatment by an English lieutenant named Hawkins (Sam Claflin), she finds herself suffering under that unwanted attention. Gifted with beauty and a voice suited for Gaelic hymns, Clare is three months past due for her letter of recommendation and release after playing Hawkins’ songbird, as well as his nightly prey, even with her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) in the next room with their infant son.
To be completely clear, audiences watch Hawkins rape Clare multiple times, including on a night where Aidan’s protestations embarrassed him in front of a high-ranking officer. The lieutenant’s vengeance is sadistic and leaves Clare out to seek her own pound of flesh against Hawkins and his subordinates. As this trio of Englishmen walk their way across the untamed bush in an effort to save Hawkins’ promotion—and afraid of the native “blacks” along the way—Clare stalks them close behind with an Aboriginal guide of her own named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). There will be much blood.
Previously showing a real skill for depicting the agonies of motherhood in The Babadook, Kent adds visceral layers in exploring the indignities women have faced throughout the ages. Handsomely mounted with exquisite, but intentionally grayed and dirtied, costuming, as well as a squared and old-fashioned Academy ratio utilized by cinematographer Radek Ladczuk, The Nightingale is a visually stunning film. Evoking the kind of sparse, primordial narratives often indulged by American Westerns, there is an epic allegorical bent to her film’s presentation that mixes a gritty naturalism with heightened dream sequences reminiscent of her now iconic visualization of a demon in a top hat.
However, it is in the daytime sequences where the real dread builds to ultimately diminishing returns. The cast trapped in this tale of perdition is uniformly excellent, and Franciosi is a talented discovery as Clare, bringing a determined edge to her waifish affectation—one that eventually transforms into a much justified wraith. She is also accompanied well by Ganambarr, whose Billy refers to himself as a “Blackbird.” His Blackbird, like Clare’s anointed title of Nightingale, suggests two creatures in desperate need to break free from a white, male (and in this case decidedly English) cage. And when that becomes impossible for either, they’ll find communion in redder ways.
There is a politically heightened subtext to this that is as vital to the film as Hawkins training a young English boy how to use a gun on black men, suggesting the universal and cyclical menace of toxic masculinity. Yet the movie finds more poetic grace when it isn’t wallowing in unfettered suffering. Much more mileage is gained by Clare convincing Billy that Ireland is not England than is found in all the graphic close-ups of a woman screaming to the stars as the second English officer mounts her in his turn.
The result is an expertly crafted film that loses its own way through the muck of fatiguing brutality and violence. The excess inflicted serves a thematic point that is potent enough to avoid the critique of being gratuitous, but Kent’s aesthetic is nonetheless needlessly cruel, repeating the same narrative hell over five rape scenes and multiple murders, including that of an infant. Kent’s impulse to create a queasy disgust with a symphony of torment is bold and initially breathtaking at instilling in audiences an inescapable helplessness, but the overall effect is withering after the film’s overlong running time. Never once resisting the urge to cut away from the repeated malevolence of its antagonists, the film indulges in every pained cry and terrorized countenance until the punishment of Clare extends to the audience after an ultimately numbing 136 minutes. At a certain point, it is a wonder that Claflin did not have a moustache to twirl in several scenes.
The Nightingale will likely be the most harrowing film of the year and will have many fans for its unapologetic stance, yet I am left as beleaguered as that fainting festivalgoer for attempting to follow it into its abyss.