The Nightingale is Jennifer Kent’s extremely controversial follow-up to The Babadook. It’s a much better film that her previous feature, but caused quite a stir when it played various festivals. For example, one festival-goer stormed out shouting “I’m not watching this, she’s already been raped twice.” This particular person may have had a personal history that made it very uncomfortable, and I totally understand that, but it is not an exploitative movie in any form or fashion. It is instead an incredibly damning film about Australian colonialism.
The lead actress, Aisling Franciosi, plays a young Irish convict, Clare. Clare is repeatedly raped by the British lieutenants she has been assigned to work for. She is left for dead after the second attack, in which members of her family are also killed. She then joins forced with an orphaned indigenous Australian tracker who she hopes can help her get revenge. The opening is harrowing but t sets the context for why she is going to do what she does as the film progresses—that experience informs everything, and you need to be with her in a way to understand it. Stick with it—it’s worth it.
Although it is not based on a true story, it is actually incredibly accurate for the time period. It is set during the Black War, a genocidal campaign by British colonialists with the aim of wiping out Aboriginal people. The mistreatment of women, especially convict/ex-convict, women in Australia is also very well documented. Spoiler alert: the most harrowing scene in the movie, even more so than the graphic rapes, is when her Aboriginal tracker mate finds out that he is last of his tribe.
It’s a great movie with a lot to say about the way Australia was founded, including a history that the country still has not dealt with in any real way. The filmmaker worked as closely as possible with Tasmanian Aboriginal elders to ensure that the film was honest and reflected the community’s reality. The result is a strong, powerful and unflinching depiction of a story that needs to be told.
Damon Herriman, who people may recognise as having played Charlie Manson in both Mindhunter and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, appears as the main baddie, Ruse. He’s a good Aussie character actor. Baykali Ganambarr turns in a great performance as the tracker, “Billy” Mangana.
As has become incredibly commonplace with period films, especially when working on a small budget, it’s been shot in the 4:3 Academy ratio and that focus makes the film more intense. The period detail is fantastic. The Nightinggale came out at first with a bare-bones DVD, and thanks to the people at Second Sight it now has a full-featured release. They have been able to license some of the more interesting indie or genre films that otherwise might end up on a cheapie DVD sold at supermarkets. This is an upgrade similar to the upcoming release of Raw or the previous one of Upgrade, with nice package that includes interviews with Franciosi, three other cast members, producer Kristina Ceyton, editor Simon Njoo, production designer Alexander Holmes and composer Jed Kurzel. Also on the disc are a video essay, “Bloody White People,” by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, a making-of, a piece that puts The Nightingale in its historical context, and theatrical trailer. Unfortunately the aboriginal actors are not separately interviewed, although I would have liked to hear more about their take on the story and their experience.