Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, her follow-up to the depression allegory (and maybe gay icon) The Babadook, deserves the trigger warning it is given. Take Driving Miss Daisy, make it more racist; add in Lady Macbeth (the costume drama, not the Shakespeare), but make it more sexually violent; and they have a baby with The Revenant, and then they stab the baby! The Nightingale is Clare (Aisling Franciosi, Lyanna Stark of Game of Thrones), an Irish convict denied release by her rapist soldier-warden Hawkins (Sam Claflin, The Hunger Games), seeks revenge when Hawkins and his scabrous lackeys kill her husband and child and leave her for dead. She hires Billy (debut actor Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal guide grappling with colonizers and their genocides, and they seek to end a mutually destructive troop in the often painfully brutal and graphic depiction of human cruelty in the outback.
Kent developed a series of unthinkable acts: think Game of Thrones but in the real world and without the stakes. Repeated rape, murder, infanticide, depictions of lynching: a buffet of human atrocities. Expect walkouts; please keep the aisles clear. The striking politicism in her revenge story made the harsh truth of the world’s brutality and its continued existence bearable within my white, male experience. Being shocked and aghast can be one of the great horrors and most exhilarating experiences in cinema, but I cannot recommend this movie will be for everyone. If The Babadook took you too far, certainly skip this one.
Aisling Franciosi, furious yet fumbling, had a hard grip on barbed wire through her harrowing experience. Poorly equipped for chasing barbaric soldiers through hostile jungle and mountains, Clare’s tenacity kept me glued to her journey, though the return to her Nightingale name–the Irish brogues used to placate drunk soldiers at their base/prison–was clumsy at best. Claflin plays that unsettlingly attractive villain: not quite Christian Bale in American Psycho but more sinister than Michael B Jordan in Black Panther. He’s more reserved than the flotsam and jetsam of his crew; the way he approaches any vulnerable subject left me crawling more than the skeeviest one of his minions. Baykali Ganambarr has trouble delivering the dialogue, but his emotional delivery exceeds the rest of the cast. DP Radek Ladczuk relied heavily on a centered mugshot; often blood spattered or capturing dramatic staring, Billy’s loss is palpable in Ganambarr’s eyes.
The film is troubled and troubling. The execution is imprecise, and I respect the film’s brazen delivery more than I liked the film, but I honestly need to see it again. I had such high expectations, cuz ya’ll know I LOVE THE BABADOOK, and this one was high on my expected list for months before SIFF. The excitement mixed with some repulsion from previous viewers stirred concern and skepticism while watching the film. I can say that in comparison to similar stories, the payoff was a battle cry of “How is this still relevant?!” Watching these types of films–your 12 Years a Slave or Precious or Schindler’s List as someone’s cathartic filmmaking experience but seemingly not aimed at the minority they represent–is a difficult venture but continuously influential in spreading the experience of the oppressed. Hard to watch? Yes. Necessary to watch; that’s up to you.