Following on from her 2014 masterpiece of suspense The Babadook. Jennifer Kent’s second feature ‘The Nightingale’ provides a gut wrenching journey into the horrors of oppression and colonialism. While searing itself into the memory of the viewer, with a vice like grip. On paper providing a thriller that plays to rape-revenge genre, while embedding the plot with a far more nuanced exploration of empire, control and genocide.
Set in 1825 as British troops enlarged their territories in Australia by forcibly taking aboriginal land in Tasmania. In turn overseeing what would become a genocide of both aboriginal life and culture. Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict servant, owned by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). She is overdue her freedom and wants to be with her husband and child. However, the cruel and power hungry Hawkins refuses to relinquish his control over her. And as tensions between Clare’s servant husband and Hawkins grow, Clare finds herself and her family the subject of a horrifying act of violence.
Stripped of everything that made her life bearable and complete. Clare hires an aboriginal guide Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). Her sole mission being to enact revenge on Hawkins and his soldiers as they walk towards the town of Launceston.
The Nightingale had already weathered its fair share of criticism prior to a nationwide cinema release. With some festival screenings leading to people walking out due to the sexual violence of the first act. And it’s true that the scenes in question are not only gut wrenching in orchestration, but also visceral in nature. However, these scenes are not placed purely for audience shock and reaction. Instead reflecting the true horror of a masochistic environment of supremacy circling the outpost Hawkins oversees. While xenophobia and control pervade the lives of those living within a stark and unknown environment. It is within the exploration of white supremacy and Empire that The Nightingale truly shines. By reflecting the complexities of displacement, ownership, racism and control that are inherent in the invasion and subjugation of a nation.
Jennifer Kent bravely and boldly takes what could have been a mainstream thriller into an interrogation of the complexities present in xenophobia and colonisation. With Clare not only a prisoner in a foreign land, but also superior to the aboriginal people of the country she inhabits. Her racism and distain for Billy clearly established as he guides her through the wilderness. While Billy equally knows his place resides at the bottom of unspoken hierarchical line of slavery. However, these barriers are slowly diminished on Billy and Clare discovering the shared pain and trauma of oppression. With Clare coming to the realisation that those who are colonised can equally become the coloniser.
While themes of British control and subjugation are equally nuanced in delivery, with those who use colonisation for their own masochistic desires, balanced against those striving for a new life of hope and opportunity.
However, the complexity of the issues Kent takes on, also create a dilemma at the heart of the film. As the narrative bravely tries to navigate the differing experiences of the colonial process and those who suffer under its oppression. For example; equating the experience of Irish subjugation with that of the indigenous people of Australia. With the oppression of Clare’s people leading to her co-opted involvement of further colonisation, while Billy’s people are subject to genocide. These are both challenging and urgent discussions from British history that deserve exploration. However, at times also feel somewhat lost in their own complexity within Kent’s film.
Despite this, The Nightingale is a film of extraordinary power, with performances that echo the horror and darkness prevalent in the founding of Australia. Alongside a deeply rooted need to uncover the truths of colonialism. Creating an unflinching and uncompromising exploration of power, control, violence and genocide.
Director: Jennifer Kent