After her highly-acclaimed feature debut The Babadook, Australian director Jennifer Kent’s highly-anticipated follow-up has finally arrived in the form of The Nightingale, a revenge thriller with period drama elements. Prompting some walkouts during its festival run due to its intense violence, this is certainly not a film for the faint-of-heart, but it is a masterful exploration of issues such as violence, racism, and misogyny.
The movie follows a young Irish convict woman in 1825 Tasmania who teams up with an Aboriginal tracker to hunt and get revenge on the British officer who has wronged her and her family. The beats of the story really don’t deviate much from the typical beats of the revenge subgenre, but the unique perspective through which Kent presents them makes the script feel almost entirely original.
Your eyes will be glued to the screen for the entirety of its runtime. The first thirty minutes pull you into the world and allow you to feel absorbed into the story, and then the next hour and forty five minutes offer non-stop tension. Even when the intensity does take a bit of a break, the feeling of unease that is established early on dominates the whole film, and as a result, there is no moment in which you feel “safe”.
This sustained pacing is well-accentuated with short but extremely effective bursts of brutality. The movie isn’t consistently violent, but when the violence is in play, it is chillingly violent. Thankfully, Kent doesn’t linger on the acts themselves, but rather, the effects they have on the characters. The violence has a purpose beyond simple shock value — it hopes to spark a discussion about the violence and the people who commit it.
Although the film is set in colonial Australia in the 1800’s, it very much feels like a story that transcends time and borders. People all over the world still face violence, racism, and misogyny on a daily basis despite the progress society has made in the last two centuries. Kent uses this fictional narrative as an allegory that is not only horrifying, but also eloquent and well-thought-out in order to have the maximum impact on the audience.
Kent also does a wonderful job of creating characters that are built around moral ambiguity. The protagonist Clare is an extremely compelling character, particularly because of her motivations, but the world in which she operates is by no means in black-and-white. The antagonists are also portrayed in a similarly ambiguous manner. Although we are horrified by many of their actions, and they are far from likable, they are presented in a way that emphasizes their humanity and poor decision-making above them being “evil”.
This movie is packed with emotion, particularly in relation to Clare’s storyline. One would have to be completely heartless to not be devastated by what happens on screen, and that devastation seems to be exactly what Kent intends. This isn’t a film meant to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside — it is meant to make you feel bad about the current state of society and the lack of respect we seem to have for human life.
Aisling Francioisi gives what is sure to be a breakout performance in her leading role. Everything she does and says feels completely honest and real. She is able to capture both the likable charm and underlying dark side of the character with depth and ease. Though it likely won’t get the attention it deserves because of the movie’s genre roots, Franciosi’s performance is awards-worthy.
Also wonderful in his role is Sam Claflin, who plays the antagonist. Until this, a majority of Claflin’s roles have been as heartthrobs or eye candy. Although he does a solid job of playing that archetype, The Nightingale allows him to show his actual chops, and he is absolutely amazing. His performance is a big part of what makes the character feel so intimidating and ruthless.
Kent also put an immense level of detail in making sure that the film is as accurate and realistic as possible. The amount of respect that this movie has for the Aboriginal culture is quite impressive. Research was done and consultants were hired to make sure that everything on screen was true to the Aboriginal culture, and it works.
The actor who plays Billy, the protagonist’s Aboriginal guide, Baykali Ganambarr, is actually of Aboriginal origins and is a part of an Aboriginal dance group. As such, his performance adds yet another layer of authenticity to the film. Even apart from the cultural elements, though, Ganambarr’s performance is wonderful. Kent’s script turns what could have easily been a throwaway side character into a compelling force, and Ganambarr runs with that, infusing the movie with even greater levels of emotion.
The visuals are phenomenal too. Shot in a smaller aspect ratio, the film highlights the emotion of the characters in the foreground rather than the scenery in the background. However, there are a few scenes in which the Tasmanian bush is used to build tension and fear, which is why Kent’s decision to shoot on location is so effective. Additionally, Kent’s roots in horror are obvious, despite the fact that this isn’t quite a horror movie, as there are multiple scenes in which the psychological horror influences are visible.
The Nightingale is a truly phenomenal work of art. The script is complex and nuanced and the visuals are beautifully horrifying. As her second feature, this film shows that Kent has the potential to become the next great visionary auteur in genre cinema.
The Nightingale opens in theaters on August 2.