‘The Nightingale’ A Brutal Film Featuring The Summer’s Best Performances

by Jonah Desneux on August 31, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up]

Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is a brilliant historical nightmare. The film’s horror does not consist of traditional tropes like jump scares or, a chilling score, but instead stems from an vicious examination of colonization. The characters in the film cannot escape the past and Kent makes audiences experience the same. Instead of sweeping atrocities under the rug like western culture is known to do, The Nightingale serves as a provocative piece of art that depicts the monstrosity of colonialism.

Taking place in the Tasmanian wilderness in the 19th Century, Clare (Aisling Franciosi) a young Irish convict attempts to gain her earned freedom from a British Officer (Sam Claflin) who treats her like his personal property. The idea of freedom is challenged after a tragic turn of events and Clare is determined to find peace through justice of her own. Enlisting the help of Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) an aboriginal man who is also haunted by a violent past due to the British soldiers, the complicated duo embark on a revenge filled odyssey.

Though immensely brutal, The Nightingale is also a beautifully made film. Channeling these two extremes, Kent crafts a thrilling follow up to her exalted debut The Babadook. The originality and eerie electric energy of both films cement Kent as a “much watch” director in the years to come.

Kent does not shy away from having her characters be morally conflicting to add to their complexity. The film’s protagonist Clare is no white night, as she herself is a hypocritical product of the hierarchical world around her. The heartbreaking situation Clare is involved in makes her emphatic, but walls are immediately thrown up once her ignorance is illuminated. Though treated horrifically by the British herself, she still holds racial prejudice towards the indigenous people of the land based off of the everyday propaganda she hears about them. Clare’s ignorance makes her fearful which in return makes her even more ignorant. This devastating cycle is made apparent by Kent and shown to be a major issue that lingers into modern day. It is with this that Clare’s growth through the new perspectives given by Billy is satisfying. The changes in the character are not forced, but properly earned through a series of accepting one’s faults and blind allegiance to the “us vs. them” mentality. 

Revenge films have a tendency to feel stale due to their inherent “by the numbers” formula. The sub-genre as a whole suffers from the notion that once you’ve seen one, you’ve been them all. Kent however avoids this dilemma and dependence on cliche with the focus on Clare and Billy’s relationship alongside the action. There moments that will have you on the edge due to the extreme intensity, but the power of film comes from the elements of the character study. 

The film’s jarring climax also helps it stand out from the rest of the revenge filled pack. It is as unexpected as it is emotionally investing. Kent’s choices in the film’s final scenes are bold but payoff off exceptionally. It is guaranteed to spark discussion and allow for audiences to be cathartic as soon as the credits roll.

The collective performances in the film are the best of the summer. Each character is constructed with such complexity but also given moments to showcase just one emotion to the extreme. The ensemble plays perfectly together in bringing this hard to stomach story to life. The impeccable performances establishe the authentic feel the film needs to have the impact that it does.

I am eager to see what future opportunities are in store for Aisling Franciosi after the world becomes witness to her talents showcased in this film. The character of Clare is a daunting task for any actor to play. She is required to be sympathetic, yet problematic, strong, yet afraid and able to employ an acute range of intense emotions both in loud and silent moments. Franciosi exceeds in all of this and deserves the utmost amount of praise for it. There is never a weak moment in Franciosi’s performance, even when the film hits it’s duller moments. From her character’s introduction in way of song, Franciosi wonderfully captures the essence of Clare and all that she represents. 

Baykali Ganambarr should also be on the receiving end of a considerable amount of acclaim. The role of Billy is Ganambarr’s first time in front of a camera, but you wouldn’t know it by the striking presence he possesses. Ganambarr gives the type of character driven performance you’d expect from a master of the craft whose spent years honing their style, not a YouTube dancer. Ganambarr hits the highest of highs with both comedy and drama. I can only hope that he gets the recognition he deserves and bright career in acting is ahead of him.

Sam Clafin is the face of colonization in the film and he plays it quite well. Breaking out of his typecast of the charming boyfriend in films like Me Before You and Adrift, Clafin goes to the other side of the spectrum and embodies pure evil. In playing the British Officer Hawkins, Clafin is scripted to do and say some truly abominable things. It is a risky role but someone has to play the bad guy and Clafin succeeds in it. With the effective performance and direction from Kent, Hawkins will become one of the most despicable villains in film history. Unlike Darth Vader or Agent Smith, it is Hawkins basis in reality that makes him so gut wrenchingly vile.

The Nightingale is a great film full of originality but is hindered by its runtime. Both the character development and the intense moments of the film are impressive, but there is an underlying repetitiveness in the story and dialogue that needs trimming. Confined in the same environment for a majority of the film, it seems that the same conversations keep happening over and over again. The plot always progresses but there isn’t a need for two oddly similar obstacles to take place twenty minutes from each other. This creates a lull at the start of the second act, that could have been avoided with shorter cut of the film.

Repetition issues aside, The Nightingale represents what makes independent films important. Kent utilizes what is taboo as a weapon to be confrontational with audiences and the subject she criticizes. Questions are asked with convoluted characters. The risk taken could not be explored with the same vigor in the mainstream, thus watering down the effect the film has. The Nightingale can be triggering, but it is an essential film for those who have the heart for it, for the sake of it’s outstanding performances and to support of auteurs like Kent who take risks at a time when they are becoming fewer and fewer.

Jonah Desneux

Jonah Desneux is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri with a BA in Film Studies. It’s baffling that someone who just spent four years writing film paper after film paper would immediately want to write some more, but hey, he must love it! Along with writing about film Jonah enjoys writing and performing sketch comedy in Columbia and Kansas City.


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