2 Hrs., 16 Mins.
The Nightingale January 9, 2020
ennifer Kent made a wise decision. After making her directorial debut with The Babadook (2014), an exceptional motherhood-is-horror horror movie that was pretty quickly dubbed one of the decade’s preeminent films, the Australian filmmaker received, in her words, a deluge of scripts. But Kent wanted to put her own interests at the forefront for her next project. The resulting film — a 180 from The
Babadook that Kent again both wrote and directed — is The Nightingale (2019). It's an admirably ambitious movie. It’s a period piece, among other things, whose brutality is rooted in historically veritable misogyny, colonialism, genocide, racism, rape, and murder. It’s a cavalcade of misery — a film-length reminder of the not-often-confronted everyday, almost-banal terrors of the past and how awful it was to be a woman and/or person of color in the time and place in which the film is set: 1825 Australia, during which British troops were working to violently conquer what is now Tasmania.
It’s commendable Kent stick to her guns, and in The Nightingale do we have a movie effective at being unfathomably ugly in an unnervingly realistic way. But it's also true that The Nightingale is so repetitively plotted and overlong that it sticks in the memory as a feature that doesn't go beyond being a series of atrocities put to the screen. It could be argued — and efficiently has been argued — that the feature is a valuable one, both historically and thematically. (Kent, who wanted to reflect the perspectives of Aboriginal people who were ravaged by genocide at the time, worked with community elders to ensure her depictions were accurate and respectful.) But there is only so much cinematic violence one can take before historical correctness and shock tactics seem to ill-suitedly converge. Shock here can of course work in tandem with realism — shock being a conduit to really recognize sins of days past and how they inform the present. But the vigor with which the movie's barbarity is delivered muddies things.
The Nightingale stars Aisling Franciosi as Clare Carroll, an Irish convict who works for the British Army. She has a husband, Aidan (Michael Sheasby), and an infant at home. Things, on paper, seem like they're picking up. But the “verge” on which the picking up rests has lasted far too long by now. We learn that a lieutenant on the base, Hawkins (Sam Claflin), is three years overdue to provide Clare a letter of recommendation that would allow her and her family to leave the settlement.
Standing up for herself inflames the situation's nightmarishness. Early in the film, Clare reminds Hawkins of his tardiness. This leads him to violently rape her. That puts into motion a series of increasingly callous events that understandably put a thirst for vengeance in Clare’s throat.
The ensemble of The Nightingale is across-the-board terrific: Franciosi is tangibly tormented, Claflin convincingly, complicatedly evil, Baykali Ganambarr (as an Aboriginal tracker hired by Clare, who spits racist vitriol at him, to find the men who’ve ruined her life) a vision of profound internalized anguish ready to rupture. Kent’s writing, though, more so highlights what happens to these people and less so what their experiences have done to them, that is in a way that feels sensitively explored. The actors, then, have to provide (and do an exceptional job of providing) the hues to Kent's colors; we figure that lesser performers might have not shaded these shaken up people like this ensemble has.
That The Nightingale is often unconstructively unpleasant doesn’t disprove that Kent is a talented filmmaker. The shooting style of the movie especially speaks to her uncanny way of giving any sort of environment a creepy, customized claustrophobia. (The movie is almost entirely shot outdoors, on cold and muddy wetlands and hillsides.) But if to compare the film and The Babadook, it’s clear that Kent works better with the allegorical and the smaller-scale than with the more literal and grandiose — at least not literal and grandiose movies with subject matters in line with The Nightingale’s. It’s possible for a movie dramatizing real-life monstrosities to be punishing in a way that also feels productive. But with The Nightingale, which is overloaded with rapes (three, to be exact) and graphic violence, Kent has leaned so much into ugliness that it has a numbing effect. Either a good or bad thing, depending on the viewer. B