What is perhaps most chilling about Jennifer Kent’s (The Babadook) depiction of Australian colonisation in The Nightingale is how little has changed in the near 200 years since the film’s setting.
As news outlets are saturated with coverage of a white politician determined to sully a sacred Indigenous landmark in a flex of privilege and entitlement, the necessity of Kent’s brutal portrayal of “white devils” rings deafeningly true.
Disguised as a revenge tale, The Nightingale offers much more than it lets on as layers of trauma and perspective mingle in its rendering of colonisation. Set in Tasmania in 1825, Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is at the beck and call of the sadistic Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) until he commits an unthinkable act of violence and she reaches her breaking point.
Clare becomes so hell-bent on revenge that she employs the help of Letteremairrener man Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her navigate the hostile Australian outback, hunting Hawkins and his men as they journey towards Launceston.
The film’s graphic displays of violence and rape have caused mass walkouts across several screenings, yet such scenes beg the viewer not to look away. It isn’t sensationalism, it’s simply factual recount. This is Australia’s past, in all its gruesome depravity, and such acts are essential to Kent’s narrative. The country has been whitewashed, and its history runs red with the blood of those brutalised by colonisation.
The harsh yet idyllic backdrop of the Tasmanian landscape is somehow both the antithesis and catalyst to the hideousness of The Nightingale. For the white devils, it’s cruel, foreboding and impossible to navigate without an Aboriginal tracker, yet for the land’s native people, it’s a saviour in every sense of the word.
Kent’s vision is brought to fruition through the powerful performances of Franciosi and Ganambarr – it’s not often you find yourself rooting for characters on a murderous mission. The pair’s shared trauma at the hands of English settlers makes for an unlikely alliance, a nightingale and a blackbird, while highlighting the different layers of privilege. Misogyny, classism and racial discrimination are all at play while the white, English men call the shots.
Despite its fleeting moments of hope and friendship, it’s not The Nightingale’s intention to entertain fantasies or sugar coat history. This isn’t the type of film you walk away from feeling the same way you did before watching it, it’s one that weighs on you so heavily that the world looks a bit uglier after having seen it. Disturbing, harrowing and confronting, The Nightingale thrives in its ability to make the viewer squirm.
The Nightingale is screening in Australian cinemas now.