04th Jun2019

Sundance London: ‘The Nightingale’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Sam Claflin, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie, Charlie Shotwell, Michael Sheasby, Charlie Jampijinpa Brown, Magnolia Maymuru | Written and Directed by Jennifer Kent

nightingale-poster

Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook is this brutal, uncompromising revenge tale set in the Tasmanian Outback. As such, it is most assuredly not for everyone, but those who can stomach the horrific opening are in for a stunningly realised revenge thriller that sears itself into your brain with its white hot rage.

Set in the British colony of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) in 1825, the film stars Aisling Franciosi as Clare, a young convict who’s served her time and is waiting for Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Clafin) to sign her papers, so she can begin a new life of freedom with her husband (Michael Sheasby) and newborn baby. However, Hawkins shows no intention of granting her freedom and instead murders her husband and child, before raping her and leaving her for dead.

Hell-bent on revenge, Clare tracks Hawkins and his two accomplices into the Outback, after he sets out for Launceton, in the hopes of being granted a better post by his superior. To do so, she secures the reluctant assistance of Aboriginal guide Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) and the pair gradually bond over their shared hatred of the British and the abuses they have both suffered at their hands.

The opening of The Nightingale is utterly sickening. Indeed, it’s the sort of thing that should probably come with a trigger warning and is likely to lead to multiple walk-outs wherever it screens. However, Kent knows exactly what she’s doing, establishing a burning desire for revenge in both protagonist and audience, while simultaneously saying everything she needs to say about Colonialism, entitlement, toxic male behaviour, you name it. (Needless to say, hard-hitting allegories abound, and Kent is on record as saying she sees The Nightingale as a film about the modern world).

Throughout the film, Kent subtly subverts the standard rape-and-revenge tropes, to the point where things never play out quite the way you expect. To that end, the film challenges the audience in unsettling ways, not least with the shockingly violent way Clare’s mid-film encounter with one of her injured aggressors plays out.

Similarly, Kent does a terrific job of establishing an atmosphere of constant threat, continually underlining that the Outback in 1825 is a place that is intensely hostile for both women and black men. Consequently, when the pair are treated with unexpected kindness, their reactions are powerfully emotional.

The performances are terrific. Franciosi has a burning intensity and rawness that’s almost painful to watch at times, while Clafin does such a good job of going full bastard that he’ll doubtless be set for life when it comes to cornering those Evil Brit roles that Hollywood loves so much. Similarly, Ganambarr (a traditional dancer making his film debut) is superb as Billy, generating compelling chemistry with Franciosi that ensures their relationship forms the beating heart of the film.

Shooting in a square aspect ratio (which pays particular dividends in close-ups), Kent makes impressive use of the stark landscape, aided by Radek Ladczuk’s equally’s austere cinematography. In addition, Kent maintains a compelling sense of pace, ensuring that the film never drags, despite its arse-challenging two hour, fifteen minute running time.

In short, The Nightingale is an intense and challenging film that’s shot through with unimaginable pain and rage. As such, it’s by no means an easy watch, but Kent’s assured direction and the intensity of Franciosi’s performance ensure that it will stay with you long after the credits roll.

**** 4/5

The Nightingale screened at Sundance London on Saturday June 1st and Sunday June 2nd.

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