The Nightingale (film review)

When I suggested this, because it’s finally available to stream in the UK, Jill – who’s already seen it – said: “Just be prepared for an exercise in masochism, and not the fun kind like in Hellraiser.”

Not even half an hour in and it became painfully clear that never a truer sentence has even been written. Luckily, I was quite prepared for harrowing after my favourite horror podcast The Evolution of Horror mentioned it multiple times in it’s Best of 2019 episode.

So here goes.

The Nightingale (2019)

Set in 1825, Clare, a young Irish convict woman, chases a British officer through the rugged Tasmanian wilderness, bent on revenge for a terrible act of violence he committed against her family. On the way she enlists the services of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy, who is also marked by trauma from his own violence-filled past.

*Spoilers*

TW: Sexual assault/violence against children/bloody violence

Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is well past the point of having served her time – for theft – and is currently awaiting release from the British soldiers currently employing her. She lives in a ramshackle hut under their control with her husband and young baby. So called Big Boss Hawkins (Sam Claflin) promises to sign her release papers day after day but is reluctant to let her go.

Things come to a head horribly when Hawkins rapes Clare and tells her he’ll let her go when he’s damn well ready and not a minute sooner. Clare returns home to tell her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) that he won’t release her but doesn’t mention the sexual assault. Nevertheless, Aidan is determined to confront Hawkins and does the next day, without success. Unfortunately, when he’s drunk he returns for a second go at persuasion and the matter escalates into a nasty brawl with Hawkins and his men.

Afterwards, Aidan decides they have no choice but to escape in the night, with or without legal papers. They didn’t think it would be that easy, did they? Of course Hawkins comes after them and let’s just say that the outcome is truly devastating – and Clare loses everything she holds dear.

Meanwhile, Hawkins has been overlooked for promotion and having witnessed his conduct over the last few days (but not the murder and rape), a visiting officer tells him the post will likely be filled by someone else within a few days. Hawkins swears down he’ll travel to the post to apply in person but first he has to find his way to town through miles of treacherous bush.

Welcome to the world – full of misery from top to bottom. ~ Clare

Determined to exact revenge on Hawkins and his sadistic crew, Clare takes a horse after them but not before acquiring a guide who knows the lay of the land. Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) isn’t thrilled to be accompanying a white woman on her journey but understands she’s looking for her husband (she’s lied innit) and off they go.

Hawkins and his men have a guide of their own, Billy’s Uncle Charlie (Charlie Jampijinpa Brown) who’s been promised a fat reward if he can keep them on track and deliver them to their destination on time. And so begins a bloody tale of horror and revenge – one I can guarantee you’ll be rooting for 100%.

Thoughts

Fuck me. Honestly I’m quite tempted to leave it at that – two simple words – but I can’t do that because there’s heaps to say.

I love this film (and Jennifer Kent) but to say The Nightingale is harrowing is a brutal understatement. You could venture, as above, that the story is full of misery from top to bottom but that would rob it of its beautiful moments. There’s a certain amount of hope in the friendship brewing between Clare and Billy – and the ending is so perfect I cried my bucket out well into the credits.

So the good: the performances are fucking great, with Franciosi and Ganambarr as the obvious stand-outs. Even Claflin (who I can’t stand) brings it as heinous, cowardly Hawkins. His men, particularly those responsible for the devastation of Clare’s entire world – Jago (Harry Greenwood) and Ruse (Damon Herriman) – are very very good in their horrible roles.

I’m not your whore. I’m not your nightingale, your little bird, your dove. I’m not your anything. I belong to me and no one else! ~ Clare

This is a movie that will make you really fucking angry – and it should. Not only do the white British soldiers treat women like their own personal playthings, to be raped and beaten then tossed aside like used tissue, they also bulldoze their way through Aboriginal land, slaughtering (and raping) without hesitation. It’s something we all know about and it’s not isolated just to Australia either – but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of how disgusting the white man can be (and sometimes still is). That sense of white entitlement is prominent throughout the movie and I sincerely doubt any of it is exaggerated just for artistic license.

Billy’s own turmoil matches Clare’s uncannily and despite their initial distrust of one another, empathy wins out. When Billy learns the truth about Clare’s husband and child he’s way more inclined to help her.

There’s actually nothing really bad to say. I believe Kent was forced to defend the inclusion of the graphic rape scenes (of which there are multiple) and it isn’t a walk in the park to watch but the film is so unflinching about the horrors caused by the white man, it makes sense.

Again, I loved it but probably won’t go out of my way to watch it again in a hurry. Billy’s devastation when he learns his entire people have been slaughtered is not something I want to relive, though his ending almost makes it worth it.

4.5/5

I have a small idea of how Jillian feels about The Nightingale but find out if she’d disembowel it singlehandedly or stay home here.