The Nightingale is the eagerly anticipated follow up to Jennifer Kent’s horror debut The Babadook. Set in 1825 Australia, only half a century or so after Captain James Cook claimed it for the British, Kent unapologetically presents you with the gloomy reality of invading colonialists brutally expanding their empire off the backs of indentured convicts and knee deep in the genocidal blood of indigenous, Aboriginal Australians.
Bullish Lt. Hawkins is an ambitious pragmatist who’s lost interest in the soldiers he commands at a remote outpost of the British Empire he’s established. Played by Sam Claflin (Oswald Moseley in Peaky Blinders), he was once motivated by the promise of the Captain’s job in a bigger town up north if he knuckled down for twelve months. It’s been three years now and he is getting restless and careless. Sergeant Ruse (Damon Herriman – Charles Manson in s2 Mindhunter) is his loyal number two and whipping boy when there’s no one else to take his anger and frustration out on.
Irish convict Clare has a beautiful singing voice. In addition to her daily, back-breaking chores, she is forced to perform in front of a ragtag bunch of lost and leering British soldiers. The last vestiges of their humanity dulled by the cheap booze they drink to forget they’re mercilessly wiping out Aboriginal people for their bed and board. She has earned the nickname ‘The Nightingale’ for this rare talent and is, unsurprisingly, the central character of the film.
Played with a steely-eyed stoicism and assured resolve by Aisling Franciosi (Game Of Thrones) Clare is a married woman with a baby. However, Hawkins owns her, and her ticket to freedom. Clare’s conviction period ended three months ago, but until he signs her off as free, she’s tied to him. A polite reminder that she has done her time is met with accusations of ingratitude and escalates to sexual violence in the blink of an eye. Kent shows Clare’s resistance to the attack is short lived and futile. He is simply stronger, and once he’s inside her, to fight and struggle is to cause herself even more pain from his invasion of her body.
However, from Hawkins point of view, Kent shows the rape for what it really is – a vulgar, pathetic display of his systemic abuse of power and complete disregard for anyone’s needs, but his own. Throughout The Nightingale, Claflin’s matter of fact portrayal and cool headedness lends every evil act Hawkins performs or commands a chilling normality. In a contemporary setting you can easily imagine this spiteful character’s impotent rage would lead him into the men’s rights movement, trolling feminists on social media and daring to be racist as an outspoken member of the alt right. He’d be whining about the curtailing of his free speech and joining the local straight pride marches. In two centuries that have passed since the time The Nightingale story is set, the legal rights and protections of women and people of colour in Western democracies, like Australia are unrecognisable, but the entitled, toxic male forcing his will on the world remains as true today, as it did back then. You get the feeling that Kent sees this parallel too.
When Hawkins is formally denied his promotion, it is Clare who pays the price. It’s a vile and distressing sequence that draws the always willing Ruse and the unwilling young officer Jago (Harry Greenwood) into Hawkins’ twisted world of kill or be killed to get what you want. With no reason to stay around, Hawkins heads north with Ruse and Jago to claim the position he feels he is owed. Suppressing her trauma and grief, Clare recruits Billy, a young Aborigine man, to help track them and have her revenge.
Billy is superbly played by newcomer Baykali Ganambarr. He lends the character an understated charm combined with a seething anger that has deadened his deep-rooted sense of optimism he had for life before the Brits arrived. Regardless of her desperate need for his guidance to find Hawkins and co., she believes the white man’s propaganda that Billy’s kind are no more than wild animals who may eat her in her sleep. She is scared of him, and keeps a rifle pointed at him at all times. The journey is arduous, but she is determined to get her eye for an eye. Billy, imbued with an Aborigine’s appreciation and respect for the land around him, demonstrates patience with Clare she doesn’t deserve. Eventually, this ‘odd couple’ find common ground through a shared disrespect for their oppressor – aka the British colonialists.
Their burgeoning relationship as two human beings learning to trust and rely on one another, after starting from a position of mutual hate, offers you hope for their characters – for mankind even. Unfortunately, these fleeting moments of positivity that Kent tantalises you with are always dwarfed by the crass and cruel actions of those who crave dominance and power, not harmony. In one horrendous scene, a group of shackled up Aborigine men are shot in cold blood because one of them wouldn’t be quiet. This heartless incident concludes with one of the white settlers excitedly claiming his trophy – an Aborigine man’s head.
When Clare begins to take her revenge, she feels no peace. Instead, she learns that as brutal as her time on earth has been to date, taking a life isn’t something to be done lightly if you possess an ounce of empathy. Like the soldiers responsible for genocide drinking themselves numb, she doesn’t get to live happily ever after with murder on her conscience. She only survives and endures even more hurt.
With no booze to drown her mental anguish in, Kent cleverly uses Clare’s vivid dreams to explore a netherworld that offers her comfort in her sub-conscious that father and baby are okay in death. Their ghosts tell her as much. By contrast her dreams turn to nightmares, once she’s spilled blood. The lost soul of her victim now haunt the very same headspace she once found solace in while she slept. The horror of vengeance and rough justice is now hers to own and unlike Hawkins and Ruse, who revel in their bloodlust, she is appalled by what she fears she has become.
The Nightingale is much more than a tragic tale of revenge down under from a time in Australia’s history many have tried to forget. It is a harrowing testimony to when “whiteness became the visible measure of human modernity.” (2019’s SUPERIOR written by Angela Saini, published by 4th Estate). This overwhelming sense of ‘white’ supremacy cast the die that is sadly in the DNA of the racism we still see today.
But Kent’s damning critique of the British colonialists in Australia isn’t limited to the racism and genocide. Misogyny is patently another evil facet of Britain’s bloody march around the globe. The insecurities of abhorrent humans like Hawkins and Ruse are manifest in the use of rape, and threat of rape, as a means to establish control over all women who might present a whiff of challenge to their authority.
In short, The Nightingale is a head on collision with the racist, misogynist inhuman disconnect, that a false sense of supremacy creates in weak, mediocre men blessed with a smidgeon of power they exploit to maximum effect. In essence, each British soldier and white settler in this film, is to the Aborigines killed, and the women raped, like a microcosm of the relentless wave of terror history doesn’t boast about when remembering how Britannia and her empire once ruled the waves. Kent’s unflinching story and unforgiving camera does not want you to ignore or forget these facts.
The Nightingale will be released in the UK and Ireland on 29th November 2019.
This review originally appeared at https://www.nerdly.co.uk/2019/11/25/the-nightingale-review/