Directed by: Jennifer Kent
Written by: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman and Harry Greenwood
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 the 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 film’s premiere during 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.