Review: The Nightingale

 

DIR/WRI: Jennifer Kent • DOP: Radek Ladczuk • ED: Simon Njoo • DES: Alex Holmes • PRO: Kristina Ceyton, Steve Hutensky, Bruna Papandrea • MUS: Jed Kurzel • CAST: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr

Watching Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is an oppressively confining experience. Nearly every scene seems to almost press in on the film’s protagonist, Clare, a transported Irish convict. Her life in a small Tasmanian settlement is oppressive, appropriate given the near unspeakable trauma she endures there. But even after she leaves for the ostensibly more open Tasmanian wilderness on a revenge mission, that feeling of confinement remains. Walls are replaced with brush that surrounds each scene, making these scenes feel small, cut-off, stifling. There, she meets a guide named Billy, a Tasmanian aboriginal. These two characters are framed by a 1.375:1 aspect ratio (a fancy way of saying that the frame is nearly as tall as it is wide), making it seem as though even the edges of the screen are  pressing inwards on them. And all the while, every random encounter with a colonizer out in the wilderness carries the threat of murder and rape. We are effectively boxed in with these characters, feeling their vulnerability to the British colonial project that surrounds them and constricts, ready to destroy not only their bodies but their identity and any conception they might have of home and belonging. Kent weaponsizes this feeling of confinement expertly, much as she did in her excellent The Babadook, giving us little comfort as we watch this revenge tale unfold. This alone would mark out Kent’s remarkable direction well enough and would give me good reason to recommend the film.

However, there’s more to this tale. There is comfort here. Though both Clare and Billy share English as a common tongue, they both also speak their respective native tongues. Both lead actors are excellent, especially in the moments where they make clear the intensely personal yet expansive cultural significance behind this native speech. In scenes where we witness this, we see a magical confluence between director and actor that suddenly makes these confined scenes feel liberatingingly expansive, not because the scenes become visually more open, but because we can hear and feel the vastness of the cultural identities carried on their voices, indicating something that colonialist violence hasn’t yet been able to completely stifle.

Here, the film displays its remarkable empathetic powers that, when present as they are for the vast majority of the film, make its insights into such heady topics as colonial, social stratification most compelling and its horrific violence most affecting. The scenes that lack this empathy are, therefore, its least effective. The film’s biggest weakness is one of its villains who becomes so evil, so inhuman, that my interest in his scenes waned. Indeed, the most interesting and affecting monstrosities of the film are the ones that are inexcusable, yet feel as though they are being inflicted by people tinged with a horrifying familiarity – who feel human and are thus all the more repulsive for it. In the rare moments when the film lacks this relatability, it loses some of its otherwise tight grip on the senses.

It must also be admitted that the film is quite long and doesn’t maintain the forward momentum it creates for itself in its first half. And yet, I feel that this is not actually a weakness. The film needs some downtime to convincingly expand its central conflict beyond that of a standard revenge thriller. It is as the complex, touching central relationship between Clare and Billy evolves alongside the film’s very plot structure that we might best see just how strong this script really is. As this happens, we get more and more moments of expansive meaning within this stifling, colonially circumscribed world and these moments of expansiveness are every bit as compelling as the nail-biting confinement we experience through most of the film. This dynamic helped me to feel no small amount of love for the two protagonists and what they represent. It made me realize that the film has done something truly special and is worthy of our rapt, horrified attention.

Sean O’Rourke

136′ 16″
18 (see IFCO for details)

The Nightingale is released 29th November 2019

The Nightingale – Official Website

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Review: The Nightingale @ Cork Film Festival

 

Tom Crowley attended a screening of Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale at this year’s Cork Film Festival.

Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent has made a stark film about her country’s brutal past. It is a film of shocking violence and unspeakable cruelty. Set in Tasmania in 1825 when it was a penal colony called Van Diemen’s Land, the Black War between British colonists and Aboriginal Australians is in full swing. Our protagonist Clare (Franciosi) is an Irish convict forced into slavery on a penal colony. She cooks, cleans and entertains the British soldiers with her beautiful singing voice. She has formed a family of her own on the colony. Her debt to society has well been paid but the unit’s commanding officer Lieutenant Hawkins (Claflin) will not let her go. Early on in the film there is a harrowing scene of almost unwatchable violence- in fact it provoked 30 walkouts at the films premiere at the Sydney Film Festival. Clare will never be the same again. She enlists the help of indigenous tracker Billy (Ganaambarr), who reluctantly helps her to hunt down those who have done her wrong. 

The previous sentence may imply Jennifer Kent has made a revenge flick. However, like her previous work The Babadook (2014), The Nightingale has much more on its mind than being a genre picture. It is a damning indictment of British colonialism, an eloquent take down of oppressive, toxic masculinity, aggressive criticism of class systems and parable about the futility of war. The film asks uneasy questions and doesn’t offer any easy answers. Take for example the layered colonial dynamic between Clare and Billy. Clare is the oppressed until she interacts with Billy and you realise she in other circumstances, is the oppressor. 

Like she did with The Babadook, Kent uses a blue/grey palette to make the audience feel the harshness of this environment. The film is presented in 1.37:1, a box ratio to highlight the oppressive reality of Clare’s life. A technique used recently by Robert Eggers for The Witch (2015) and Xavier Dolan for Mommy (2014), two very different films striving for the same effect. 

One could be critical of Kent’s characterisation of the film’s villains, the British soldiers. They are quite archetypal. The Lieutenant is handsome, angular boned, but has a pitch black heart and zero empathy for anyone ‘underneath’ him. He has two drunken sidekicks; Ruse (Herriman) is rodent-like and happy to do whatever his Lieutenant says. Jago (Greenwood) is dim-witted and submissive. They are caricatures written to fit Kent’s political agenda. You want these characters to die a slow and painful death. This could be perceived as audience manipulation on the part of the director, especially the way the film plays out in the end, the audience almost complicit in the violence.

Dublin born, Aisling Franciosi, puts in a brilliant performance in what must have been a brutal experience for the actress. Like Essie Davis’s Amelia before her, Kent portrays this world largely through Clare’s perspective. There is no hiding from Kent’s close-up as Franciosi illuminates grief, horror, trauma, longing, helplessness and glimpses of brutal satisfaction. 

Whatever the political message, Kent has made a film that has built upon the promise of her first. It is a film about a brutal chapter in humanities past. We shouldn’t look away no matter how hard it is to watch. A nightingale symbolises virtue and goodness, of which in this film, neither can be found.   

 

The Nightingale screened on 11th November 2019 @ the 2019 Cork Film Festival (7 – 17 November).

 

The Nightingale is in Irish cinemas from 29th November 2019.

 

   

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