I’m not usually nervous going into a movie, but I was with The Nightingale. No, it wasn’t because of what I had heard would be featured and depicted. No, it wasn’t because of The Babadook. What spurred my anxiety was the anticipation of having to review something that bent so powerfully on themes of race, gender, trauma, and revenge. It’s quite the personal responsibility to get right with yourself and with your readers on such subject matter and subtext. Indeed, dear audience, this was not an easy watch. It never goes the route of A Serbian Film for certain - a movie that kept upping the vile and bile all the way til the dirty conclusion for the sake of some pretentious nonsense - as everything in Nightingale, the ugly and the beautiful, is at least honest, no matter how brutally so.
Interestingly, in my mind at least, I compare this to the Paul Haggis Best Picture winning Crash, which I suppose no film should be contrasted with in good measure. Nightingale never panders or reassures its white privileged viewers with scenes of reconciliation so sappy it’d make a tree melt and buckle, even when showcasing the worst of white male dominated humanity and power. Instead, what begins as a simple revenge tale quickly turns itself on its head, revealing just how in over her head our lead is, and just how much more she must learn for the sake of her soul.
Our lead is Clare, played by Aisling Franciosi in what is assuredly a heartbreakingly vulnerable, positively aggressive turned assertive, and absolutely invincible performance. She works in what is essentially an indentured servitude type labor camp in early 1800s Tasmania, now almost fully under British control. She’s Irish and, with her husband and baby, seeks her freedom, but is under the ruling thumb of a petty and mad Lieutenant. This “man” wields his power much like a demolition firm uses its wrecking ball, or in how massively endowed adult performers are requested to behave for the camera. That is to say, while his evil shows more than Snidely Whiplash, it’s vastly more believable than in that cartoon way, probably because 1) We’ve all heard of it and 2) Some have felt all too much of it.
It feels true because it IS true.
Tragedy strikes early and hard, in a fashion I dare not describe in specifics or spoil a ghastly. Immediately, Clare demands justice, going so far as to wander into the unknown wilderness with a young aboriginal guide named Billy, played with straight fire, disdain for “authority”, and ever escalating self-confidence by Baykali Ganambarr. She calls him “boy” often and harshly, as that’s what she’s used to and all she understands. He shrugs it off, even as the word stings. Sooner than later though, both will bond over mutual hatred for the British Army - who have taken equally from Clare and Billy - and this bond will go from being based on hate to being based on what’s righteous and right.
The Nightingale deals in the horror of murder and pillaging, of taking and taking some more with no remorse whatsoever. In one haunting scene early on, when Clare is being abused, she looks upon a fire that cackles and burns with calming rage, somehow giving her a moment to breathe. In another, there’s a shared moment between her and a local villager despite the fact that they didn’t and will never meet. Both are experiencing traumatic events in different ways, but look up at the night sky, and see the bright stars and immense heavens. There may be an indifference that the universe has to our suffering, but we don’t have to be indifferent to each other.
We could draw lines from this film to our current society, of course, but I would argue that Nightingale is a bit broader than that. At least, in some respects. Certainly, President Trump comes to mind when we think of encouraging an environment that breeds aggression towards those seen as minorities, but that may be too simplified. Even within all the rhetoric, there’s some nance missing from the punditry conversations. Nightingale understands this, Jennifer Kent gets this, and goes for the throat with complications, with contradictions, with changes of heart, with motivation, with it all. People are imperfect, you know.
This is a film rich and complex in humanity, specifically what we are ultimately boiled down to when stripped of everything, and what lengths any of us will go to take and/or to make right. For this, it is breathtaking and astounding, harsh but real, and open to any and all criticisms. Just when you think The Nightingale won’t go any further, it does, but only in so far as the characters are. And you’ll be surprised just what lurks inside a person’s very spirit.
This is, for now, my pick for favorite film of 2019. Grave, stark, but important. Never looks away from anything.
Aboriginal villagers here don’t speak English, but are subtitled. When speaking out, crying out for their families and for safety, all the while the men in power smiled in smugness and behaved in and with disgust, I nearly threw up in anger and true shock.
We’re better than this, aren’t we?
Then why repeat?
RATING: 5 / 5
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