Sundance London 2019: The Nightingale (2018) Film Review

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Premiering at last year’s Venice Film Festival, The Nightingale is Jennifer Kent‘s film following The Babadook. Set in 1820s Australia, Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) witnesses British officers led by Hawkins (Sam Claflin) murder her family. Unable to find justice through the authorities, she recruits Aborigine tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to find them.

Kent takes her time to establish multiple elements that provoke an emotional response such as racism, derogatory behaviour towards women and violence. She also incorporates these themes through her visuals and screenplay to convey the hatred and endless inhumanity of an era defined by race and gender. This creates an alarming setting where it becomes all too easy to emotionally invest in Claire’s plight.

Unfortunately, The Nightingale‘s setting of the vast Australian wilderness takes too long to move between scenes so audiences also find ourselves on an arduous trek where it takes a while to get anywhere. In addition, the lack of different plot devices results in very few thrills or drama, so audiences are relying on the characters to guide the film.

Thankfully, The Nightingale‘s biggest plus is its endearing heroine. Clare’s youth and beauty have made her a possession by Hawkins and a target for the drunken soldiers’ unsatisfied lust. When this shocking treatment comes to an abrupt end, she realises she has wasted her reluctance, patience and compliance. Despite her lingering despair, Clare manages to control her emotions and through Franciosi’s expressive performance, she refuses to be a victim.

The relationship between her and Billy is also compelling. He is quick to assume that Clare is like all the other ‘whites’ but empathises when he discovers that racism is not the only abuse inflicted. The initially hostile camaraderie soon develops into mutual understanding that thankfully isn’t reduced by romantic undertones.

Their attitudes towards their victimisation also provide a stark contrast to Hawkins, played wonderfully by Claflin. The officer is vying for a promotion so that he can ‘escape’ but blames everyone else for his circumstances. Rather than find redemption, he continues to be a cold-hearted character who uses his authority to mask his sins.

With a runtime of over two hours, The Nightingale is simply brutal filmmaking. With every component touching a nerve, it is hard not to stew with anger afterwards – so kudos, Kent.

Director: Jennifer Kent
Stars: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie
Runtime: 136 minutes
Country: Australia

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

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