Blu-ray Review: The Nightingale | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Wednesday, May 27th, 2020  

The Nightingale

Studio: Shout! Factory

Feb 06, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Australian director Jennifer Kent burst onto the scene with her 2014 debut, The Babadook, a raw exploration of grief and motherhood in the guise of a monster movie. The film was an early entry in the wave of art-horror films - or “elevated horror” if you’re feeling particularly obnoxious - that have gained popularity over the last few years, such as The VVitch, It Follows and Hereditary. This cycle of films and the space they occupy in the culture have come under criticism for a variety of perceived sins, not limited to pretension, didacticism and of course, “not actually being that scary.” The Babadook is certainly unsubtle, presenting its titular boogeyman as a clear stand-in for the protagonist’s grief and exhausted frustration at being a single mother. But more than overt horror, Kent seeks to impart discomfort, which is not always something even the most hardened horror fans are used to. One of the most common complaints regarding The Babadook was that the protagonist’s young son was too shrill and annoying, as though that were somehow a bug and not a feature in a film about a woman whose damaged relationship with her child manifests as a screeching, black-hatted monster.  

For her sophomore effort, Kent expands her canvas and emotional register to epic proportions, while telling a tale so personal and so grim that it makes The Babadook look like a Disney film. The Nightingale is set in Tasmania in 1825, where the dregs of the British army are ‘civilizing’ the furthest reaches of the empire via the slow, steady extermination of the native Aboriginal tribes. We’re introduced to this world of cruelty through the eyes of another victim; Clare, an Irish indentured servant living under the yolk of a sadistic lieutenant alongside her husband and newborn baby. After an unimaginable atrocity is visited upon her and her family, Claire takes to the wilderness to seek revenge with the grudging help of a young native tracker named Billy.  

The rape/revenge genre has seen a reclamation by female filmmakers over the last few years, with movies like Revenge, MFA, A Vigilante and the upcoming Promising Young Woman bringing a more thoughtful and nuanced perspective to a subgenre long derided as an excuse for exploitative nudity and justified violence. The Nightingale is unlikely to be the final word in this subgenre, but it could certainly be its apotheosis; a film that explicitly and relentlessly correlates the act of rape with colonialism and systemic oppression. Most rape/revenge films feature a single rape, generally the inciting incident of the film. The Nightingale has three, each one unblinking in their focus on the suffering of their victims. The sheer amount of abuse and suffering depicted in the film had many viewers calling it gratuitous and excessive out of hand, but therein lies Kent’s purpose: discomfort. Punishing in its length, subject matter and pacing, The Nightingale presents us with atrocity after senseless atrocity, always eschewing clear answers or closure.  

The stark, vicious cruelty of the world Kent presents belies the humanism and nuance with which she presents it. Although The Nightingale is addressing the globe and history-spanning ills of white supremacy, patriarchy and colonialism, it always keeps its gaze personal and narrow. Kent shoots in the boxy Academy ratio, tightening the sides of the frame on the faces of her subjects and making the Tasmanian wilderness feel simultaneously endless and suffocating. That focus is well earned by the casting and performances of the two leads; IrishItalian actress Aisling Francoisi as Clare and Baykali Ganambarr as Billy. Francoisi is a well of despair and fury, a typical register for the lead performance in a revenge film, but she never allows Clare to become a hollow shell like so many similar characters. No matter how much she loses, every action still costs her something. First time actor Ganambarr is equally impressive, giving Billy - or Mangana, the blackbird, as he reveals to be his true name - a charmingly sardonic sense of humor that always fails to cover his extreme loneliness and despair. Their chemistry is terrific, although the film again shuns any easy answers. Clare’s mistrust and distain for Aboriginals is not ignored and the campfire scene in which they grudgingly come to recognize each other as victims of a shared oppressor conjures bemused melancholy rather than heartwarming bonding.  

As fascinating as the two leads are, the film spends a large amount of its runtime with its villains, a trio of British soldiers that perfectly triangulate as three uniquely separate but wholly recognizable facets of systemic violence. Sam Claflin’s Lieutenant Hawkins is the handsome, ambitious sadist, utterly immoral in his pursuit of advancement. Damon Herriman’s Sergeant Ruse is the mad dog, too stupid and hedonistic to consider the moral weight of the terrible orders he follows. Harry Greenwood is Ensign Jago, wracked with guilt by the crimes he witnesses and perpetrates but too cowardly to ever speak against them. All three are compelling if not sympathetic, but Claflin in particular shines as one of the most despicable villains in recent memory. A subplot in which he takes a young orphan boy under his dark wings is a truly vile microcosm of the civilizational scourge that is toxic masculinity and profound incuriosity regarding those other than oneself.  

For all the grim realism of the story she’s telling, Kent’s script allows her several smart opportunities to indulge the Expressionist horror chops she displayed in The Babadook. A dream sequence where Clare and her husband are dancing like stop-motion dolls is particularly beautiful and unnerving. It’s a testament to Kent’s tonal deftness that these scenes don’t feel out of place in what is ultimately a story about all too real horrors perpetrated by all too human monsters. The Nightingale is as brutal and relentless a film as one is likely to see, but its honesty and unwillingness to compromise are a powerful reminder that uncomfortable and upsetting art are deeply vital to us as individuals and as a society. 



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