The Nightingale (2018)

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.

The Nightingale film posterCREDITS
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.

The Babadook (2014)

I’m no connoisseur of horror films. In fact, I can hardly remember the last time I went to see one in the cinema (it might have been The Others back in 2001… so, a long time ago, basically). But every so often I feel the need to shake up my viewing habits, and currently I’m trying to get along to see as many films by woman directors as possible, so here’s this one, it’s Hallowe’en time of year, and it’s a horror film. Thinking about the genre, and why I don’t really get into it, it feels to me like its signifiers — the silence preceding the fright, the things jumping out at the viewer unexpectedly due to very careful control of the point-of-view, the threatening music cues — are often deployed for no greater effect than just to scare people. That has its value of course, and I get that lots of people enjoy the ride, but when it does things right — horror no less than any genre film — it ties its frights into something rooted in character. That’s certainly what The Babadook does.

It’s about a single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wieseman) who live together in — naturally — a creaking old wooden house with a dark basement and strange noises at night. When Amelia starts reading the eponymous children’s pop-up book to her son, a book which has appeared mysteriously on their shelves, things start getting scary. So far, so generic — albeit with an excellent sense of depicting empty threatening space, and with a quiet narrative momentum — but what the film does particularly well is to root the terrors in a formative act of horror: the tragic death of Amelia’s husband while rushing her to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. It’s this experience that opens the film, as Amelia wakes from another nightmare about it, and it’s implied that this has resulted in Samuel’s difficulties forming attachments, and it certainly informs the way that the family deals with the monster of the title. The film never really gets nasty at a visual level (this is no ‘torture p0rn’ of the Saw variety), but the sense of mounting terror and threat — which at times seems to emanate as much from Amelia’s grief and depression, and then from her son’s bitterness, as from any scary monsters — provides a series of chills and scares, and does so increasingly effectively. So maybe I need to get over my hang-ups with the horror genre.

The Babadook film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jennifer Kent; Cinematographer Radek Ladczuk; Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wieseman; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Camden Town, London, Thursday 6 November 2014.