Review: Jennifer Kent's startling 'The Nightingale' a brutal period piece

September 1, 2019

Courtesy of IFC 

Jennifer Kent took took the horror world by storm with her stunning debut, “The Babadook” (which propelled the titular urban legend into the pathos of terrifying villains). In the process, Kent jumped on everyone’s radar, and instead of tackling a big budget blockbuster for Marvel or DC, the Australian-bred filmmaker’s latest, a brutal period piece entitled “The Nightingale,” avoids being categorized as a sophomore slump. 

 

Set in 1825 Tasmania, “The Nightingale” - working as the kind of revenge drama akin to the gritty “The Revenant” - stars Aisling Franciosi as Irish convict Clare, whose living under the strict rule of a sniveling British officer (Sam Claflin - shedding any good boy image from “The Hunger Games”) who is desperately trying to earn a promotion as captain, and to attack women whenever he sees fit. Not only does he force Clare to sing to him - she’s the songbird of the title - he forces himself upon her when asked to honor a longstanding promise to release her from his camp. 

 

Keeping in tune with the brutal events that steam from colonization, Kent isn’t afraid to show Clare being raped a few minutes into the film, then again 20 minutes later as her husband and infant daughter scream in agony. Following this horrific tragedy, Clare awakens the next morning with a new agenda: track down the three men who carried out the vicious attack, and kill them. 

 

Fueled by misery, she hires an Aboriginal guide (newcomer Baykali Ganambarr whose a real find for the picture) to help steer her in the direction of the recently departed soldiers. Ironic considering Clare is just as racist as the men she’s seeking, but she and her guide, Billy, eventually find common ground over their burning hatred for England. It’s a relationship that takes time to blossom, as Kent doesn’t make their tribulations easy, slowly building to something more. There’s a quiet and rugged satisfaction to their trek, and the two must do all they can to outlast the vermin (animal or human) stalking them in the woods. And Kent shows how survival (no matter how small) can be seen as victorious. 

 

But if you find yourself conflicted by Clare’s thirst for vengeance, Kent has you right in her grasp as there’s no redemption being sought here. Kent, not afraid to shy away from the brutality at the center of the tale, doesn’t really give us anyone to root for. It’s one tragedy after the other, and the higher the body count, the quickly it makes Clare feel empty and lost on her journey. This Isn't a fun or cheesy revenge drama as Kent is far more concerned about the conditions of the indigenous people of Australia just as she is about Clare. 

 

Be warned, “The Nightingale” depicts raw and graphic violence towards children and woman not easy to view - the rape scenes are some of the most traumatizing and realistic depictions in recent memory. But at the center of it all is the breakthrough performance by Francisoi, whose range and stability gives “The Nightingale” some closure - and briefly - some peace. 

 

The actress shows great restraint and paired alongside Kent feels like the perfect marriage of actor and director. Though “The Nightingale” could use some cleaner touch-ups (particularly in the films hurried climax) this rather savage journey turns out solid in the end, thanks to Kent’s ability in understanding the demons that lurk inside our souls and how forging a path to empathy might be our greatest human instinct. 

 

Grade: B+

 

The Nightingale opens at The State Theater in Ann Arbor and the Birmingham 8 in Detroit on Friday August 23rd. 

 

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