A Quest for Revenge Leads Elsewhere in Searing Frontier Drama 'The Nightingale' | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Quest for Revenge Leads Elsewhere in Searing Frontier Drama 'The Nightingale'


Published September 18, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 21, 2019 at 12:47 p.m.

ROAD TO NOWHERE A young woman with nothing to lose seeks vengeance in Kent’s stunning real-life horror film.
  • ROAD TO NOWHERE A young woman with nothing to lose seeks vengeance in Kent’s stunning real-life horror film.

Perhaps one of the earliest rape-revenge tales is the Greek legend of Philomela. Her attacker cuts out her tongue to ensure her silence, but she gets her own back (gruesomely) and is transformed into a nightingale, the bird renowned for its voice.

In the new film from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), Aisling Franciosi plays Clare, a young Irish convict in 1825 Tasmania. Called "the nightingale" for her singing voice, she lives under the thumb of her supposed benefactor, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Working as an indentured servant in his colonial outpost, she's managed to build a decent life for herself — until one horrific night leaves her with an unquenchable rage and nothing to lose.

Like Philomela, this nightingale puts herself on the well-trodden warpath of vengeance. The film's graphic depictions of violence (including multiple rapes) have occasioned trigger warnings and walkouts at festival screenings, yet Kent has said The Nightingale is not a rape-revenge movie. She means it. This historical epic, which breaks like a storm over our heads, is about going after revenge and finding something different that occasionally feels like grace.

To track down Hawkins, who has set off through the bush on a quest of his own, Clare hires Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), a young Aboriginal man. Initially, she's casually racist and dismissive of him. But his pragmatism and wry humor keep her from spiraling off into her nightmares.

Later, as they develop a bond, Billy tells Clare about the slaughter of his family by the colonists. "I'm Ireland," she insists, declaring herself his ally against British oppression. He looks skeptical. While Billy is also named for a bird — the blackbird — one gets the sense that his alliance with Clare must be temporary, given their different positions in the brutal colonial hierarchy. Their bond is born of suffering, their needs converging to produce a kind of fleeting tenderness.

The Nightingale isn't an easy movie to watch or recommend. There are scenes one could argue are gratuitous despite their realism. (The film takes place during Tasmania's Black War, which some historians classify as genocide.) But Kent grapples earnestly with uncomfortable questions, much like Fred Schepisi in his harrowing Australian classic The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and she reaches some powerful conclusions.

Where many filmmakers would exploit Clare's righteous rage for its cinematic potential, this one follows her heroine's violent impulses to their logical ends. Franciosi's riveting performance captures each stage of Clare's journey, showing us that the adrenaline rush of anger can only take a person so far before grief demands its due.

Kent doesn't even give us the satisfaction of hissing at a dastardly villain. Casting a handsome leading-man type like Claflin is a strategic move; Hawkins comes off as callow and self-pitying rather than as a primal force of evil. His henchmen are even more pathetic; they've committed inhuman acts, yet they persist in being human. As a result, retributive violence never yields relief in this movie, for the characters or the viewer. It just generates more of itself.

Kent made her name as a horror director, and The Nightingale shows us a landscape of nightmares where corpses hang from trees and rot in farmhouses. But there are also moments of bleak, unearthly beauty, and of hope. Philomela paid a terrible price for the voice of a nightingale; her story is sometimes used as a metaphor for transforming trauma into art. Clare also comes to sing with a new and unsettling power. For better or worse, they are heard.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Nightingale"

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