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.
18 (see IFCO for details)
The Nightingale is released 29th November 2019