It’s instructive to point out that The Nightingale is not for the faint of heart. There’s horrific violence abound; at one point early on, a rapist violates his victim while her baby screams in his ear. But in no way is this powerhouse another treatment of male violence filtered through an exploitaive male gaze. In her second film, after 2014’s haunting The Babadook, Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent creates a woman’s revenge tale fueled by a righteous anger at the evil men do. There’s not a whit of audience coddling. You’ve been warned.
Set in the harsh 1825 Tasmanian Outback, the film stars Aisling Franciosi — the Italian-Irish actress best known as Game of Thrones‘ Lyanna Stark — as Clare, a 21-year-old Irish convict. She’s been sent to this remote penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land and enslaved by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), a British officer and boot-and-polish sadist. His slow rise in the ranks is a consistent sore point. So he takes out his frustration by brutalizing those in his charge, from underlings to prisoners. That most definitely includes Claire.
At first, Hawkins is content to make the young woman his personal songbird, given that Clare sings like a nightingale while she serves him food and drink. And then the screaming starts. Claflin, the blond dreamboat Finnick Odair in The Hunger Games series, plays this colonial monster without dropping his charm and good looks, which makes him doubly scary. It’s a bold gamble of a performance that pays off. Hawkins wears a surface sanity in public; he desperately wants that promotion. And it’s Clare’s hope that the pressure will persuade him to set her free, along with her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby), a fellow convict, and their infant daughter.
When her dream of liberation is brutally squashed, Clare vows revenge. That’s when Kent and the splendid cinematographer Radek Ladczuk (shooting in the square-shaped, old-school Academy ratio) build a historical story of vengeance that shakes you to your core. The Nightingale extends from the tale of one woman in pursuit of a male predator to a broad condemnation of a system that exploits women and the indigenous people of Tasmania, all the while detailing how their world becomes one.
Clare chases Hawkins into the wilderness on her husband’s unsteady horse, her trauma often reducing her to a fevered dream state that tests her survival at every turn. As a guide, she hires an Aboriginal tracker, Billy (a superb Baykali Ganambarr), who is reluctant to work for this half-crazed, racist woman who is likely to get him killed. Ganambarr, a dancer in an extraordinary acting breakthrough, builds a character whose grudge against the British begins to match Clare’s own. Watching the mutual hostility between these two antagonists soften into a fragile bond gives the film a fierce hold on viewers, and Kent never loses sight of the psychological wounds that fester underneath Clare’s odyssey. It’s a shame that she diffuses the force of her storytelling with too many false endings. But as a devastating deconstruction of the complex nature of one woman’s retribution, The Nightingale is peerless.