The lone woman in competition last year at the Venice Film Festival, Jennifer Kent brings her Tasmanian gothic tale The Nightingale, a violent and disturbing revenger tragedy of stark pessimism, to UK cinemas this week.
“Welcome to the world, boy,” Clare (Aisling Franciosi) tells Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). “Full of misery from top to bottom.” And Clare should know. It’s 1825 and she’s a young Irish mother with a small baby, but also a convict in Van Diemen’s Land, whose fate resides in the hands of the sadistic British officer Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). She sings her Irish songs of being a nightingale for the ragtag band of alcoholic soldiers, but her life and her family are destroyed one night when Hawkins commits a terrible crime against her family.
Left for dead, Clare revives and, enlisting Aboriginal tracker Billy along the way, goes after Hawkins who has set off overland for a town where he hopes to receive a promotion to captain. The journey is fraught with dangers as any whites they meet are inclined to kill Billy on sight and Clare herself is in danger of being raped and killed. It doesn’t help that they lose their provisions and barely trust each other, but as the journey goes on through hardship and a mutual contempt for the English – “Not poor me, bastard Britain,” Billy says – a friendship slowly begins to emerge.
Kent provided one of the best debuts of recent years with her parenting horror movie The Babadook. Expectations were therefore understandably high for her follow-up, but somewhere along the way The Nightingale – like its protagonists – gets lost in the woods. Radek Ladczuk’s cinematography brings out both the beauty and the brutality of the land and the people who inhabit it, but as the film drifts through dream sequences and diversions, the dramatic power of the chase fizzles in the damp of the woods. Kent is justly incensed by this period in Tasmania’s history which saw the indigenous populace systematically killed and moved in an example of ethnic cleansing that was tantamount to genocide.
But the villainous are so villainous – Hawkins is accompanied by a similarly vile Sgt. Ruse (Damon Herriman) – and their deeds so unremittingly awful that the brutality becomes numbing. The appearance of a gruffly kind farmer suggests she feels the need to provide a glimmer of hope in the awful darkness. And yet this is a powerful and disturbing film – and the true history of the period, unfortunately, justifies a grim view of human nature. The performances of both Franciosi and Ganambarr are extremely strong, as common cause is finally made.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty