Aussie writer-director Jennifer Kent was already working on her new film, The Nightingale, back in 2014, when Scene interviewed her about her much-talked-about horror debut The Babadook. She described The Nightingale as a "revenge story about the futility of revenge ... about the ridiculous nature of an eye for an eye."
Kent said then that she thought it would be difficult to make a straight drama about grief and sorrow and darkness, which is why she incorporated surreal and psychological elements into The Babadook. She said she believed they would make that film's themes more universal. But there is nothing surreal about The Nightingale. It is less a psychological thriller than a brutal frontier drama. But make no mistake: It is also about grief and sorrow and darkness. It continues its run at Akron's Nightlight Theater this week and expands locally to the Capitol Theatre.
Set in 1820s Tasmania, the sparsely populated island off Australia's southern coast, the film begins on a military outpost under the command of one Captain Hawkins (Sam Claflin), the absolute poster child for toxic, violent, entitled white masculinity. Relegated to a backwater, alongside scoundrels and drunks passing for soldiers, he takes his fury out on the region's aboriginal people and the prisoners in the penal colony he oversees. One of them, a young Irish woman named Clare (Aisling Franciosi, who played Lyanna Stark in Game of Thrones' final seasons), has completed her sentence, but Hawkins refuses to release her permanently to her husband and young child. He views her less as a slave than as a pet: his little nightingale.
After a shocking act of violence — the film comes with a trigger warning about rape, which we hasten to reaffirm; it's among the tensest and roughest scenes we've ever watched — Clare ventures out into the Tasmanian wilderness in pursuit of Hawkins and his men, who are en route to the big city, Launceton, where Hawkins intends to plead his case for a promotion.
Clare brings along an aboriginal tracker, a man named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), who in many ways becomes the film's most important character. Through Billy's eyes, Clare sees the savagery of settler-colonialism, the same monstrous behavior that typified the settling of the American frontier. In both America and Tasmania, the chief characteristic of colonization was a violent disregard for indigenous lives. Claflin's Hawkins is one of the purest representations of this abominable inclination.
After days in pursuit, and yet another brutal act of violence, vengeance comes to seem ever more futile in the grander scheme of injustice. (Kent was right about that.) The Nightingale nevertheless powerfully acquaints audiences with the pain of victims and with the desperation and rage for which vengeance can often seem like the only antidote. Clare and Billy's evolving relationship, forged by tragic loss, is one of the more memorable we've seen in years. Franciosi, Ganambarr and Claflin are individually and collectively magnetic as they inhabit the grief and rage of their characters. All told, this is a gripping and harrowing film that packs either the strongest or second-strongest gut punch of the year.
As a side note, Franciosi bears a resemblance to both Alicia Vikander and Emilia Clarke, the latter of whom starred alongside Claflin in 2017's godawful tearjerker Me Before You, and if you've seen it, you may experience moments of bizarre dislocation throughout.