Few films are more brutal than The Nightingale. The follow-up from The Babadook director Jennifer Kent is an unapologetic look at the vile, dehumanizing violence at the heart of colonial Australia in the 19th Century.
Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is a young Irish woman working for her papers of freedom, sentenced to a Tasmanian outpost under the control of Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Part of her sentence is to provide song to the soldiers, as well as to be brutally assaulted by the officer in charge. The rape is handled without pretense, showing (like most of the violence in the film) a cold, unadorned brutality.
When even more terror is inflicted upon Clare and her family, she enlists the help of a local indigenous man named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to track down those who took everything from her.
The horror here is all the more galling without a supernatural element. The profound evil of human behavior is on display. While Hawkins’ has little in the way of redeeming qualities, Kent does well to make even the most malevolent monster still in some ways part of a vile system, understanding if never forgiving his acts as part of a larger narrative of dehumanizing exploitation.
Similarly, Clare’s own story – the Irishwoman subjugated by an unfeeling British system – feeds upon colonial conceits with her connection to Billy. Shit runs downhill, as it were, and the levels of distrust and prejudice come from many vectors.
To Kent’s immense credit, the behavior of these individuals is kept within the confines of their characters. One extremely telling moment finds Clare impotent in trying for revenge, an entirely de-cathartic moment that exposes the fact that one does not simply snap their fingers and everything suddenly works out the way the movies have taught us.
A deeply troubling revenge thriller, The Nightingale is not an easy watch. However, thanks to a refusal to conform to conventions, it’s extremely effective at drawing us into Clare’s world. Reminiscent of the best of Sam Peckinpah, the film is a melodic, lyrical tale of disturbing violence and an unblinking look into the darkness.