Deeply disturbing and at times excruciatingly painful to watch, this brutal revenge film is a nuanced, unflinching shock to the system.
With her first film - the critically-acclaimed 2014 horror film, "The Babadook" - writer/director Jennifer Kent established herself as a filmmaker to watch. She has officially arrived now that her second film, the epic period drama/thriller "The Nightingale" has taken flight. And with "The Babadook" in her rear-view, and with the posters/trailers for "The Nightingale" showing blood and dread, it would be easy to think that from the outside looking in, "The Nightingale," might also be a film in the vein of horror. Oh it is, but not in the traditional sense.
Yes, there are horrors in "The Nightingale," but no monsters or other super-natural creatures need apply. Instead it features the scariest beast of them all: Human beings. Doing things that only humans could possibly fathom, achieving evils that no demon could have ever imagined. We are capable of some pretty sick stuff, and "The Nightingale" has lots to say on the subject of what it inherently means to be human.
Set in 1825, Clare (the absolutely stunning, Aisling Franciosi, who is an absolute revelation) is an Irish convict living in the English penal colony of Tasmania (at that time, Tasmania was known as Van Diemen's Land by the occupying British forces). She is the legal property of the young Lt. Hawkins (Sam Claflin), a man who is anxiously awaiting his transfer to a better position up north. Hawkins has sexually abused Clare for an unknown period of time, but a devastating development leads to Clare tracking Hawkins through the indigenous terrain of Tasmania, with the help of a hired tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr).
The "development" is so devastating, so unthinkable, that the film came with a warning from the film's studio, IFC Films, not to share the "specific nature" of the film's first half-hour. Let's just say that it may not be for everyone.
What I can say about it, is that not a frame of the first half-hour is gratuitous or unnecessary. Jennifer Kent imports us into a world that feels totally uncharted, with breath-taking cinematography that captures the beauty of this far-away land. And yet, the film is populated with characters we feel we've seen before: The angry and desperate protagonist, the "unlikely" ally that she is forced to get to know, the villain, and the villain's doltish side-kick (played here by Damon Herriman, who you may recognize as Charles Manson from "Mindhunters" as well as Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"). But almost miraculously, they are all given depth and definition, taking what we know of the archetypes and forging real living, breathing creatures out of them.
Any misstep with the handling of these characters would send the film spiraling towards cliché. For example, Sam Claflin's villainous Hawkins could have easily been portrayed as an over-the-top, mustache-twirling heel, but instead makes him one of the most charismatic and under-stated monsters the screen has seen in years. Ganambarr is tremendous, grounding the film and reminding us that good does exist. And phew, Aisling Franciosi. A star has been born, giving a performance that will be compared to Leonardo DiCaprio's Oscar-winning turn in "The Revenant" but for me, was an even deeper, richer overall performance. Oh, and it's pronounced "ASH-ling Fran-CHEE-oh-see" if you're wondering).
But as much as these performances add to the film, these characters are only products of their environment...limited by and created by the history of their respective cultures. "The Nightingale" tackles issues of race, class and sex on its road to redemption, offering no easy answers to any of it.
If you feel like you want to look away from the screen, that's because the reflection of our own humanity is being shown back to us all too clear. "The Nightingale" is a powerful and moving journey, one that challenges the viewer not only to stick with it past that first half-hour, but to try to get it out of your head days and even weeks later. Good luck at that.
If I'm not singing its praises loud enough, let me repeat: "The Nightingale" is one of the best movies of the year.
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Thriller.
Run Time: 2 hours 16 minutes.
Starring: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Harry Greenwood.
Written and Directed by Jennifer Kent ("The Babadook").
"The Nightingale" opens in limited-release on Friday, August 30th, 2019.
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