REVIEW: The Nightingale [2019]

Rating: 9 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 136 minutes
    Release Date: August 29th, 2019 (Australia)
    Studio: Transmission Films / IFC Films
    Director(s): Jennifer Kent
    Writer(s): Jennifer Kent

You’re my life.

After giving grief and survivor’s guilt physical form by way of a violent monster known as The Babadook, writer/director Jennifer Kent turns her sights on trauma and the ways our bodies, minds, and souls react to unimaginable and unprovoked pain endured at the hands of mankind’s superiority complexes born from delusions of grandeur. To do so she went back into the dark history of her home country of Australia to recognize the hatred and malice shown on the news today along racial, gender, religious, and sexual lines isn’t new. The white progeny of European colonizers declaring themselves the rightful inhabitants of land their ancestors stole are merely continuing a long tradition of domination. And those fighting back are still discovering the humanity necessary to combat every abhorrent advance.

The result is a fictionalized account of the unchecked brutality in Tasmania circa 1825. Between a British penal colony set-up to house the worst criminals England had to offer and the aftermath of the systematic destruction of an aboriginal people who called this land home, it’s no wonder the area was known as “Hell on Earth.” Add the unconscionable decision of throwing in women guilty of petty crimes to “even out” the gender disparity (because 8 to 1 due to the male soldiers stationed to “keep the peace” was “even”) and the Englishmen in control were given carte blanche to do whatever they may. Since their ranks provided them with an unparalleled benefit of the doubt when their proclivities went too far, justice didn’t exist for the oppressed.

Titled The Nightingale, Kent could have easily labeled it The Nightingale and the Blackbird once her lead Clare (Aisling Franciosi) begins the harrowing journey for vengeance against those who ruined her life with the help of an aboriginal guide/tracker (Baykali Ganambarr‘s Billy). The former is her moniker because of how her ex-con Irishwoman sings for Leftenant Hawkins’ (Sam Claflin) troops. He bought out her prison sentence and holds the power to let her leave with her husband (Michael Sheasby‘s Aidan) over her head. Hawkins thus owns her like only a “white devil” could—the same way men stole Billy’s Mangana (“Blackbird”) from his family to do their bidding in chains. The music they each sing in native tongues therefore recalls the sense of pure freedom they might never experience again.

It also helps bridge the divide between them. Just because both have a common enemy (the British army) and are by definition an oppressed people doesn’t mean their own intrinsic biases won’t keep them at odds. Clare as a white woman harbors her own superiority over Billy by calling him “Boy” and refusing to treat him as an equal just as he as a Black man remains on-guard with fear knowing she could kill him at any second without repercussion. All they see is the color of the other’s skin and thus refuse to truly share who they are and what they hope to get out of this trek north on the heels of Hawkins and his accomplices (Damon Herriman‘s Ruse and Harry Greenwood‘s Jago). Eventually they will.

Before that occurs, however, the two must endure more hardship than the suffering that already haunts their dreams. IFC Films isn’t messing around with the subject matter Kent so boldly depicts to express this pain either. When they supply press a lengthy “trigger warning” to ensure we understand the film isn’t meant to be an easy watch and isn’t afraid to provoke in order to portray truth, you know the talk that’s gone around since the 2018 Venice Film Festival hasn’t been embellished. Clare being a woman and Billy being a Black man are pretty much all that marks them as “less than” and thus “fair game” when it comes to the cruelty of those who’ve deemed themselves “better than.” It’s why retribution is in their hands alone.

While that vengeance sets them on their path, it’s not what sticks upon the film’s completion. What lingers is how the characters on-screen react to the information they’re given. How does Hawkins respond to bad news? How do Ruse and Jago answer the order to commit atrocities beyond the horrors they’re already willing to inflict? What do Clare and Billy do when they begin to see how similar they are? That last bit is profound and handled as such once surface opinions and prejudices are allowed to evaporate. Their union begins out of necessity, but soon evolves into one of respect and understanding. By the end their quest even moves beyond personal vendettas to simple good versus evil. Their survival becomes secondary to that of the innocents slaughtered every day.

And Kent makes certain we recognize this shift by sticking with Hawkins and his men almost as much as Clare and Billy. If The Nightingale were solely about her mission to kill her target, the escalation of his vile barbarism would prove excessive. It doesn’t, though, because we need the bodies left in his wake to mean something. We need them to open Hawkins’ pursuers’ eyes and remind them that monsters must be put down regardless of personal connection. Because the more we sit back and let them murder, rape, and pillage, the guiltier we become via complicity. The unbreakable bond of kinship formed between this white woman and Black man is crucial in today’s climate as swaths of oppressed populations realize the destructiveness of their own privilege.

Our trauma isn’t some sliding scale to be measured against that of others. Your pain doesn’t give you permission to inflict it on another. And yet that’s exactly what has happened to put us in a place where Nazism is not only alive and well, but in the mainstream and legitimized in some circles as a political movement. Genocides still occur today because of the fear of knowing your power is only safe if those who oppose you are out of the picture. Why should colonizers live in peace with natives if they can wipe them out and take full control? Why should the patriarchy grant women equal rights when they can continue to draft laws that dismiss them as little more than property beholden to their whims?

Kent uses her horror background to construct visceral nightmares that follow Clare around and yet never dares compare or contrast her emotional torture to Billy’s—a man who witnessed the annihilation of his entire community. What happened to them is presented with an unspoken equality that ultimately brings them together with a common goal. Maybe murder is the only weapon Billy can wield considering his race, but perhaps Clare has the capacity to destroy her foe in different ways because of hers. And if one part of Franciosi and Ganambarr’s performances needs singling out above the rest (both are absolutely phenomenal), it’s their ability to express the situation’s futility. Yesterday’s loss can’t be made whole. But they can work to guarantee another doesn’t experience that same loss tomorrow.

[1] Aisling Franciosi as “Clare” in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
[2] Damon Herriman as “Ruse” in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
[3] Baykali Ganambarr as “Billy” and Aisling Franciosi as “Clare” in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

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