FOUR STARS In colonial Tasmania, an Irishwoman seeks revenge for the death of her family at the hands of a British officer.
Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin
PERIOD DRAMA #THENIGHTINGALE
Let’s get straight down to it. THE NIGHTINGALE is an excruciatingly difficult watch. There’s barely a moment in its generous 136 minutes where the story comes close to what you might call enjoyable. Even then, enjoyable is a very defined terms. Jennifer Kent’s follow up to the much lauded THE BABADOOK is ostensibly a revenge tale set in colonial Tasmania. Right there, students of the period know this is unlikely to be a sumptuous period drama of coaches and country estates - it’s going to be a tale of great pain and even greater suffering. And that’s exactly what Kent delivers in this extraordinarily visceral film.
Hawkins (Sam Claflin) is a deeply unpleasant officer doing His Majesty’s bidding in a penal colony near Hobart. He views everything as his property to control - the island, the ‘natives’ (or what’s left of them), the colony and convicts like Claire (Aisling Franciosi) and her husband Aiden. Hawkins particularly likes to control Claire in the most brutal ways for he is bored, entitled and terrified he’ll be left to professionally rot at the far end of the earth. This angry man is also a murderer and a rapist as we learn in the most confronting ways possible. Kent doesn’t pull her punches, and they land so heavily that a number of festival screenings have had audience members to walk out. Time and again, THE NIGHTINGALE shows itself to be unflinching in telling its tale.
THE NIGHTINGALE is also a wonderfully elegant film that works against convention. It has a boxy 4:3 frame that keeps a tight focus on its protagonists. Elegance is in the action, not in sweeping views of Tasmania’s beauty. If you’re white, nature is a thing to be beaten before it beats you. If you’re Billy, a local tracker, it is home. And it’s in the relationship that builds between Claire and Billy (she’s forced him to hunt down Hawkins who is heading across the island to secure his job before his thuggish reputation changes everything) that the film takes off. Parallels are clear - again the elegance - for they’re both disposed, both prisoners of the British, both harbour a grudge, both love their homeland, their rituals and their songs of country.
While some of these points become hammered where a tap would have done much better, they do provide Kent with opportunities to let her visual craft take over. They give us pause to catch breath amid the relentless cruelty inflicted on this cast, moments in which the Nightingale sings.