Calling The Nightingale a revenge film sets an expectation of triumph, found in the satisfaction of grim justice done on the unjust. Let it be known that there’s no such catharsis in Jennifer Kent’s followup to her 2014 debut The Babadook. Revenge, while indeed a dish best served cold, tends to be prepared in one of two ways in cinema: with fist-pumping vigor or soul-corroding sobriety. The Nightingale sticks with the recipe for the latter.
This is neither a pleasant movie nor a pleasing movie, but it is made with high aesthetic value to offset its unrelenting pitilessness: It’s fastidiously constructed, as one should expect from a director of Kent’s talent, and ferociously acted by her leading trio of Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr and Sam Claflin, respectively playing an Irish convict driven by rage, an Aboriginal tracker driven by vengeance and a British military officer driven by cold ambition and bottomless malice. They’re three peas in a horrible pod, being 1820s Tasmania during the Black War, when English colonists slaughtered Aboriginal Tasmanians to the latter’s near extinction. It’s an altogether dark time in the country’s long history.
Thus, The Nightingale is an appropriately dark film. Clare (Franciosi) serves out a seven-year sentence under her master, Hawkins (Claflin), who’s also her rapist. He refuses to release her from his charge. When Clare’s husband, Aidan (Michael Sheasby), gets involved in her emancipation efforts, Hawkins instigates a scuffle that leaves Aidan and their baby dead. Clare survives. The law declines her entreaties for justice, so she takes justice into her own hands and hires Billy (Ganambarr) to help her intercept Hawkins on the road north for a promotion. Because The Nightingale is an honest film, Clare, low as she is on the social totem pole, treats Billy like garbage. She may be sub-human, but she’s more human, or at least less sub-human, than him.
She’s wrong, of course, but that’s part of Kent’s thesis. The Nightingale doesn’t soft-shoe the trickle-down function of white supremacy, but it does single out whiteness exactly as the social construct that authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates know it to be. Frankly, the film owes a perhaps unintended debt to Coates’ Between the World and Me, an epistolary novel in which he muses that even the Irish were once considered “black.” The trick is that Billy is black, and Clare benefits enough from her whiteness to regard him as a servant—that is, until they share with one another their war wounds over a fire on the hunt for Hawkins. They sing and speak in their mother tongues, and presto, their relationship changes. Ice thaws. Hatred cools. Bonds over their mutual oppression are forged.
Heartening egalitarianism aside, the sun never rises on The Nightingale. It is, to the last, bleak. It has to be. There’s no authentic way of turning a genocide narrative into an encouraging story about the brotherhood and sisterhood of all mankind. Kent instead bides time, touring the audience through Tasmanian ruin via colonialism, conducted through offhand executions, yet more rape and the casual desication of Billy’s homeland. There’s great patience to Kent’s craftsmanship, assisted by cinematographer Radek Ladczuk and editor Simon Njoo, which sustains an unexpected air of composure even at the movie’s most barbaric. As colonial authority waves away Clare’s allegations, so too does The Nightingale subvert the audience’s assumptions about where it’s going and whose story Kent is actually telling.
“This is my country,” Billy laments between sobs in a key scene toward the film’s ending. “This is my home.” In a rare moment of humanity, he and Clare are sheltered by a kindly farmer (and his less kindly wife), who offers them a place to rest their heads and food to fill their bellies. The white folks sit at the table. Billy reflexively sits on the floor. The farmer invites him to join them. Billy’s incredulous at first, wary of being hit by the whip that’s lashed his back most of his life. When it becomes clear the offer is earnest, his eyes fill with cumulous clumps of grief and he breaks down in the farmer’s home, which isn’t really his home at all, merely a spot of earth that either he stole or, more likely given his disposition, was stolen on his behalf from Tasmania’s original inhabitants. The revenge baton passes from Clare to Billy. The film’s point of view shifts.
Kent is too shrewd a filmmaker to argue that Clare’s suffering trumps Billy’s, or to make any equivalency between them. She understands what must happen to fulfill Clare’s part in the story, and what must happen to fulfill Billy’s part. That she’s able to so seamlessly achieve both is an incredible accomplishment. The Nightingale is a far cry from The Babadook on obvious grounds of genre and style, though there are horrors here aplenty: Nightmare beats where Clare dances with Aidan, then with Hawkins and her other attackers. But the film expands on Kent’s interest in women’s stories by telling Billy’s tale alongside Clare’s, and shows once more her gift for making well-tread genre elements feel unique. If The Nightingale denies the traditional satisfactions of revenge cinema, it discovers new ones as well.
Director: Jennifer Kent
Writer: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Sam Claflin, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood
Release Date: August 9, 2019
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.