Reviews: Jennifer Kent’s powerful The Nightingale

The Nightingale,
Directed by Jennifer Kent
Starring Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, and Baykali Ganambarr

Aussie director Jennifer Kent’s debut, The Babadook, blew me away, and many other audiences around the globe. It didn’t just give us a fascinating, engrossing horror, it had such fabulous emotional complexity to it, matched by some beautiful crafted visuals. It was hard to believe this was the work of a debut director. The Nightingale, Kent’s second feature film, has again left me quite happily astonished at how incredibly confident and assured she is in bringing her vision to the screen and getting the best out of her actors. With great accolades accrued on the international film festival circuit, it is now getting a richly-deserved special edition Blu-Ray release by the good folks at Second Sight, which gives us a great excuse to revisit this powerful and compelling film.

It’s the 1820s in Van Diemen’s Land – what would later be called Tasmania – during the era where the Land Down Under was still being used by the British Empire as a colony built using exported convicts, many of whom would have committed what we would consider tiny infractions (stealing bread to stay alive, for instance), and found themselves sentenced to Transportation to the other side of the world, to a land totally alien to them. It was a cheap and exploitative way for the British authorities to start settling this vast new southern continent (well, new to Europeans who, as usual in history, pretty much ignored the fact that others had lived there for thousands of years already, such was the colonial mindset of the era).

Clare Carroll (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict, in a remote settlement overseen by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). She’s already well past the duration of her sentence, but Hawkins simply won’t sign her release papers. Claflin makes a wonderful job of delivering his Hawkins, a petty man desperate to be The Big Man (he’s clearly relishing the chance to portray such a nasty character). He’s in charge here, but only of a ragged troop of very sorry looking soldiers and a few convicts, taking every opportunity to show his power over them, but painfully aware of his own junior rank by a visiting superior, and that there are others above him who hold power over him as he does over the people below him, and how he hates that.

The Nightingale is not an easy film to watch – its subject matter is fiercely strong, including gender and race issues, violent sexual assaults and brutal torture and murder of Aboriginals, and that content is there from very early in the film, where Clare is forced to sing to entertain the troops before the visiting senior officer (who Hawkins hopes to impress as he tries to gain a promotion), with the drunken rabble leering horribly at her, followed by Hawkins inviting her to sing to him in his quarters, where he forces himself on her.

Franciosi’s acting is utterly remarkable throughout this film – a scene following this rape sees her lying side by side with her baby, telling her stories by the firelight. Franciosi perfectly captures the competing emotions running through Clare; she is smiling for her infant, bonding with her baby, but behind that smile you can see micro-expressions, especially around the eyes, the trauma manifesting itself, that “what just happened to me, how could that happen?” feeling, and you can see her struggling to hold it in check, to be warm and loving and strong for her child while fighting the effects of the brutality visited upon her. It’s a small scene but just one of many where Franciosi’s acting craft is displayed; she clearly cares about her character deeply and wants to convey all the contrasting emotional depths of Clare.

In one of the many extras on this special edition there is an interview with Franciosi, where she reveals how drawn she was to the part. She tells us that Kent had a psychotherapist in the production, and she was free to constantly talk to the therapist about people who had endured traumas and PTSD, how they reacted both physically and mentally, as well as them taking her to visit women in refuges who had been in violent relationships so she could talk to them. She also commented that some of those women found those scenes hard to watch (they are, and they should be), but also pleased that these issues were being raised so viscerally and visibly in a public sphere, because these are not just historical atrocities but sadly a very modern reality for too many (likewise the abuse and murder of Aboriginal people being shown so clearly was also felt deeply by contemporary Aboriginal viewers).

Clare is put through worse, however, driving her into an almost Western-style quest through the outback for vengeance, with Billy – Baykali Ganambarr – as her Aboriginal guide. At first she’s as bad as the English officers and soldiers, seeing “the blacks” as monsters, not human, likely to turn round and cut her throat if she isn’t careful. She even spend the first part of their trek through the forest with her rifle pointed at Billy. As their perilous trip continues they very slowly start to realise how similar they are, how both have been robbed by the brutal, uncaring Powers That Be, with everything taken from them, their lands, their families. Baykali Ganambarr’s performance too is just something else to behold – modern Australia is still coming to terms with the historical abuse of Aboriginal people, and it seems clear this young actor took very seriously the chance to portray some of that history on the screen. A scene where he is treated with some small humanity by an elderly man sees him break down in tears, “this is my land, this is my land…” he weeps as the gentle treatment breaks the emotional dam within him.

These actors are put through the emotional wringer repeatedly, without even so much as a soundtrack to distract from the vicious horrors inflicted upon them, and yes, it is hard to take – it should be hard to take, after all – but ye gods, the acting craft on show here from these young leads is just superb to see, and the way it is constructed and put together so assuredly by Kent I was again constantly reminding myself that this was only her second feature film, and yet here was this immensely powerful subject matter, deftly handled by director and actors, unflinchingly presented with assured hands on the tiller. I’ve got Kent marked down as one of my directors to watch out for in the future. Like Karyn Kusama after watching Destroyer and The Invitation, I now have Kent on my list of film-makers where I will watch any new work they do (and come on, we all love film here, so I am sure many of you also love finding new talent like this too).

This limited edition Blu-Ray release from Second Sight comes with a pile of extras, including numerous interviews (some had to be recorded during the ongoing pandemic and so aren’t shot in quite the way they would be normally, but that’s to be expected in current conditions, and in fact I think kudos go to the Second Sight team for being able to arrange them during these wretched Covid days). I found Franciosi’s interview in the extras to be the most compelling; I said earlier how deep her acting felt to me, and in this extra she revealed a lot of what went into that performance, and also how much it took out of her (I was unsurprised that at the end of filming, emotionally and physically exhausted, she told her agent to hold offers for a while because she needed the rest). All of that performance, that authenticity, that depth of expression and emotion, is all up there on the screen, a testament to the cast and the crew,

The Nightingale is released on a special limited edition Blu-Ray by Second Sight on February 8th. This review was originally penned for Live For Films.