The Nightingale (2019; Jennifer Kent)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, August 9, at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco, Piedmont in Oakland and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.
Jennifer Kent follows up the psychological horror of her 2014 breakthrough The Babadook with a different sort of nightmare. This time, Kent takes on the horror show of history, finding a cruel and mercy-free “civilization” built on slaughter and sadism. The Nightingale certainly offers no shortage of endurance test sequences. Our protagonist gets raped and beaten in the opening minutes, and it’s arguably not even one of the top five most disturbing moments.
Shot in murky hues and framed in Academy ratio, The Nightingale takes place in Tasmania 1825. Aisling Franciosi stars as Clare, an Irish convict controlled and ritually brutalized by the evil Leftenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). When a visiting officer denies Hawkins a promotion, he goes entirely off the rails. In a stomach-turning sequence that seemingly goes on forever, Hawkins and his soldiers inflict all manner of atrocities on Clare and her family.
Out for revenge, Clare enlists the help of an Aboriginal guide named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr, stealing the film). As they track the soldiers through the wilderness, Clare initially treats Billy as bad as everyone else does. However, through a series of campfire bonding sessions, Clare sees that Billy lives with violent dehumanization every second of his life. The Nightingale becomes about as woke as a film stuffed with long and indulgent scenes of rape and murder can get.
While the story drags a bit in the middle, Kent still proves adept at crafting compelling cinema. Right through the final frames, Kent refuses to offer easy answers or let anyone off the hook. For all the violence, the film is more thoughtful than exploitative, with raw power and unfortunate relevancy. You can pair it with Isabella Eklöf’s Holiday for a bummer doubleheader of feminist takes on sexual violence.