Some of the best Australian films really plumb the bleakness at the heart of (their/our) society, and you get the sense that some of that violence and nastiness goes back to the (European, colonialist) foundations of the modern country. That’s certainly the history that Jennifer Kent is confronting with The Nightingale, which took a year or two to get a release in the UK.
Ah yes, the history of Australia: it’s a bit like American history in some respects. It can get quite dark, and The Nightingale is a film that’s intent on peering into that darkness. It’s not a genre film in the way that the same director’s The Babadook (2014) was, except in so far as it plays with a rape-revenge narrative. It tells a gnarly, suffocating tale of British colonialism and state-sanctioned violence, as young officer Lt Hawkins (Sam Claflin) heads north from his rural posting in Van Diemen’s Land (modern Tasmania) to the local city in order to seek a promotion, despite his clearly being unfit for command due to his sadistic violence and inability to discipline his troops (well, perhaps those qualities can’t truly be said to disqualify anyone from command in most colonialist enterprises). Aisling Franciosi’s Clare is the prime object of Hawkins’ violent tendencies, at least at the start of the film, and this section presents a bit of an endurance test (let’s just say that she at least starts the film with a husband and a baby), as the film sets out the circumstances for her pursuit of Hawkins.
Clare begins the film as someone who has been transported to Australia due to a criminal conviction, and the grinding circumstances of criminality, poverty and lack of opportunity, combined with the high-handedness of the British authorities, creates a toxic environment of bitterness and hatred that extends not just within the British settlements but outwards towards the native Aboriginal inhabitants of the country, and at no point does the director spare us from the language or the violence used in pursuit of colonialism. Indeed, at a certain level this film reminded me of The Last of the Mohicans (1992), but only if that film were remade to remove all the elements that make it appealing to cinema audiences, and left only the brute fact of colonial violence and exploitation.
I can’t say that I entirely loved The Nightingale, but I feel as if it fits into a context of films which confront something in history that few films seem prepared to do, territory that in recent Australian cinema is occupied by Sweet Country as one example, though very few other films that have been distributed here in the UK, at least.
Director/Writer Jennifer Kent; Cinematographer Radek Ladczuk; Starring Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 30 November 2019.