The Nightingale (2018)

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Image via miff.com.au

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I can’t get this film by Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) out of my head. I went to it with some trepidation after tales of mass walkouts at the Sydney Film Festival.

There were a handful of women who walked out during the first of several harrowing and violent rape scenes. I can see how, if you are a survivor of sexual violence, it would be too real to experience in the context of a night’s entertainment.

The verisimilitude that depicts colonisation as a bloodbath is what engaged me the most. There are no plucky colonists here, for all it is a fight for survival and the ones that seem to have the most power are, unsurprisingly, white men. And although this, on the surface, is about the oppression of women and the attempted genocide of Aboriginal people, underlying it all is the ever present tragedy of men so intent on showing no weakness that they will destroy anything that is warm or feminine or empathetic.

Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is the nightingale of the title. A convict who has had her freedom bought by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), her promised emancipation is withheld by him as he forces her to sing for the soldiers and sexually assaults her behind closed doors. Her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) is equally powerless and when he challenges Hawkins, a tragedy occurs that sets Clare on a path of vengeance. Along the way, she reluctantly co-opts Aboriginal man Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her track down Hawkins and a small party of soldiers and convicts. They have their own tracker, Charlie (Charlie Jampijinpa Brown), who is a silent observer of their of vindictiveness and violent abuses.

Not surprisingly, the narrative arc is about Clare and Billy and their slow understanding of each other. Both are victims of abuse, both of the violence of men and of colonisation. Clare sees her Irishness as setting her apart from the soldiers but to Billy, all white people are the same. It’s not really Billy’s story, though, and we get some sense of the experiences of Aboriginal people and Billy as an individual, but there are overtones of the noble savage trope that is hard to ignore.

Hawkins and fellow perpetrator Ruse (Damon Herriman) have no redeeming features and so are surely intended for cathartic, prolonged and violent deaths but Kent avoids such simplistic beats, ensuring we see that blame cannot simply be apportioned to those we understand are monsters.

Much is made of the Tasmanian landscape and you get a visceral sense of the Country of the Aboriginal people; verdant, wild and no match for an invading force. Franciosi is sublime and Ganambarr encapsulates the scrappy vulnerability of not just Billy but a whole people. Bravo to Claflin for taking on such a reprehensible role that banished any thought of Finnick O’Dair from my mind. Although not perfect, this film is compelling, poignant and hard to forget.


Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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