The first thing to know about Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent’s long-anticipated follow-up to her head-turning 2014 debut, The Babadook, is that it’s a complete departure, though the primal bond between a mother and her child again figures to some degree. In place of the earlier film’s imaginative handcrafted horror, The Nightingale is a period thriller that depicts violence of a far more real kind, pointing back to Australia’s blood-stained colonial past in early 19th century Van Diemen’s Land, the southern island state now known as Tasmania. But the film’s ambitious reach is undercut by script issues, with a powerful setup that doesn’t carry the grim tale all the way to its conclusion.
The cruelties visited upon early convict settlers by British soldiers, the sickening treatment of women and the near annihilation of the aboriginal people all fuel converging currents of brutality that make this a tough film about shocking inhumanity. Having the plot driven by a female protagonist — played by Aisling Franciosi with a heartrending vulnerability that hardens into vengeful fury — gives the action contemporary currency. Though it’s to Kent’s credit that she hasn’t cooked up a woman-warrior scenario to pander to anyone’s expectations of gender representation, particularly since being the sole female director selected for Venice's main competition this year has come with its own baggage.
The shattering personal tragedy of Franciosi’s character, a young Irish convict woman named Clare, opens her eyes to the dehumanizing treatment of the land’s original inhabitants, slowly yielding empathy out of intolerance. As much as sexual violence and the violence of power and oppression figures in to the tale, the focus is on the racial violence embedded in Australian history. And through the structure of a revenge thriller, it becomes a story about looking beyond differences to find mutual compassion and understanding.
All that makes The Nightingale a project of considerable scope, which aims to tell a gripping historical tale while covering a complex thematic canvas with a viewpoint relevant to today. In many respects, it succeeds. It’s well-acted for the most part, vividly atmospheric and evocatively shot by Polish cinematographer Radek Ladczuk in Tasmanian wilderness locations, taking great visual advantage of the contrasts between the dense ground cover of lacy ferns on the forest floor and the airy treetops of the canopy. Gorgeous shots of the brooding night sky suggest the watchful gaze of violated nature.
But the Australian gothic feel gets a tad lurid at times and the villainy too unmodulated. The bigger difficulty is that Clare is somewhat decentered in her own story for much of the narrative’s rambling midsection, leading to a problematic, protracted final act in which Kent’s storytelling stumbles into implausibility as she struggles to construct a satisfying payoff. Those flaws, and the extreme nature of much of the violence, will likely make this a commercial challenge.
That said, there’s much to admire and ample reasons to keep watching. Shot in the boxy Academy ratio, which amplifies the drama’s unsettling intimacy, the story opens with Clare’s husband, fellow convict Aidan (Michael Sheasby), tenderly kissing her before setting out from their hut for the day’s work. Soon after, she strides through the bushland singing a Gaelic lullaby to the baby strapped on her back. But the fearsome knife she clutches makes it clear this is no tranquil green paradise.
It’s 1825, and while Clare has served her seven-year sentence for theft, she remains indentured to British officer Lt. Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who arranged for her early release from prison; he has been stalling for three months instead of writing the legally required letter of recommendation that will free her. The film’s title comes from the voice of crystalline sweetness with which she sings on command in the local tavern while being leered at by Hawkins’ unruly men, the worst of them the crude corporal Ruse (Damon Herriman). Hawkins gave permission for Clare’s marriage to take place, but his infatuation with her makes him claim ownership, getting abusive when the trinkets he gives her fail to buy her affection.
Clare hides the awful extent of Hawkins’ mistreatment of her from her husband, but Aidan nonetheless grows impatient, confronting the Brit to demand his wife’s release. Hawkins’ seething response is amped up by his frustration over his own stalled recommendation for a captaincy in Launceston, in the more civilized north part of the island. So he sets out across the rugged interior to make the case for his promotion before the position is filled. But before departing, he stops at Clare and Aidan’s hut to reinforce his superiority in the most terrible way possible, aided willingly by Ruse and more squeamishly by the nervous young ensign, Jago (Harry Greenwood).
The heartless crimes committed against her family (the nature of which reviewers have been urged not to reveal) compel Clare to undertake the dangerous journey north on Hawkins’ tail, employing young aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) as her guide.
Billy has his own reasons to hate the English, having watched as a boy while they killed the men in his family, causing his mother and aunts to flee. He was raised by whites, taught to speak English and forced to abandon the traditional ways of his people. While the kinship of injustice between Clare and Billy is obvious, it takes time for them to overcome their mutual hostile suspicion and establish trust. The violent conflict of the period between aboriginal Australians and British colonists in Tasmania, now known as the “Black War,” is shown in slaughtered white farmers with butchered livestock, as well as the lynched corpses of young blackfellas barely out of childhood.
It’s around this point that Kent begins to vacillate over which story she really wants to tell, and while the theme of victims finding common ground has rich possibilities, the balance is off. That’s partly because the focus keeps shifting with heavy-handed emphasis to Hawkins’ party. Their amoral barbarism has been firmly established and yet it’s still cranked up further for good measure in punishing scenes involving an aboriginal mother (Magnolia Maymuru) captured by the loathsome Ruse.
It’s arguable also whether Clare’s first taste of revenge might not have benefited from greater restraint. Instead it transforms her from a woman plagued by nightmares to one teetering on the brink of madness, downgrading her for part of the action from the driving force of her mission to a participant in need of rescuing. This might be realistic given the time and the character’s limited resources, but in narrative terms it feels like she’s shortchanged.
The climactic payback is a long time coming and loaded with too many improbabilities when it does arrive, preceded by a confrontation between Clare and Hawkins that sacrifices verisimilitude for speechy indignation. A prosaic coda meant to signal a hopeful way forward also feels too contrived for a movie grounded in hard-hitting realism.
Franciosi, best known for the BBC series The Fall, is nevertheless a compelling lead with real fire in her belly, whether broken by the horrors Clare endures or filled with feral rage. Newcomer Ganambarr makes an equally strong impression, and the scenes between Clare and Billy show a touching progression in the strangers’ negotiation of one another, leavened by low-key moments of humor. The other aboriginal actors also register strongly, including both Maymuru in some of the hardest scenes to watch, and Charlie Jampijinpa Brown as Billy’s surrogate uncle and mentor in ancient ceremonial ways, co-opted into serving as Hawkins’ guide. Claflin, playing against type, and Herriman make effective enough bad guys, though their irredeemable characters leave little room for subtlety.
If The Nightingale doesn’t quite fulfil the high expectations for Kent’s sophomore feature, it still shows a director with a muscular handle on her craft, though in this case she could have used a script collaborator to address the weaknesses.
Cast: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Michael Sheasby, Ewen Leslie, Charlie Shotwell, Charlie Jampijinpa Brown, Magnolia Maymuru
Production companies: Causeway Films, Made Up Stories
Director-screenwriter: Jennifer Kent
Producers: Kristina Ceyton, Bruna Papandrea, Steve Hutensky, Jennifer Kent
Executive producers: Brenda Gilbert, Jason Cloth, Andrew Pollack, Aaron L. Gilbert, Ben Browning, Alison Cohen
Director of photography: Radek Ladczuk
Production designer: Alex Holmes
Costume designer: Margot Wilson
Music: Jed Kurzel
Editor: Simon Njoo
Casting: Nikki Barrett
Visual effects supervisor: Marty Pepper
Sales: FilmNation, Endeavor Content
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)