As an unflinching portrayal of colonization and genocide, The Nightingale keeps its focus on the psychological trauma and is more hopeful than it seems

The Nightingale (film)

The Nightingale (2018)

Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Jen­nifer Kent. Star­ring Ais­ling Fran­ciosi, Baykali Ganam­barr, Sam Claflin, Da­mon Her­ri­man, Har­ry Green­wood, Ewen Leslie, Char­lie Shotwell, Michael Sheas­by, Char­lie Jampi­jin­pa Brown, Mag­no­lia May­mu­ru, Nathaniel Dean and Luke Carrol.

When The Nightin­gale be­gins, we see Irish­woman Clare Car­roll (Ais­ling Fran­ciosi) walk­ing alone with her baby through the woods on her way to a mil­i­tary de­tach­ment where she works as a ser­vant. At the slight­est sound, she grips a knife, alert to any sign of dan­ger around her. The year is 1825, dur­ing the British col­o­niza­tion of the is­land of Tas­ma­nia, south of the Aus­tralian main­land. It’s the out­set of an ex­treme­ly vi­o­lent pe­ri­od that would lat­er be­come known as the Black War, which clashed the British set­tlers against the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples in a long mas­sacre that would claim hun­dreds of lives on both sides.

As an out­post colony in the mid­dle of nowhere, the place then known as Van Diemen’s Land was a hell­hole of rapists, mur­der­ers and crim­i­nals of the worst breed, who were sent there as pris­on­ers and en­dured the sever­est forms of pun­ish­ment far from the eyes of the British Crown, main­ly as a warn­ing. It was a law­less land, where those in pow­er could get away with mur­der, tor­ture and geno­cide. To lev­el the gen­der bal­ance, women who had com­mit­ted mi­nor crimes were also sent there, but they would still be large­ly out­num­bered in a place that was not safe for them by any means. When we meet Clare, she is a con­vict who has served her time and can­not wait to re­turn to Ire­land with her hus­band and child, no mat­ter how tough her pre­vi­ous life used to be back home.

Nick­named “Nightin­gale,” she serves drinks at the gar­ri­son and sings to of­fi­cers who be­have like pigs. The com­man­der of the unit, the vi­cious Lieu­tenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), con­sid­ers Clare his prop­er­ty and re­fus­es to give her a let­ter of rec­om­men­da­tion that would set her free. I de­cide when you leave and when you stay, he brags, be­fore rap­ing her (again). The con­stant abuse and hu­mil­i­a­tion Clare is forced to en­dure — both for be­ing a woman and an Irish — soon es­ca­lates into an or­deal and a hor­rid tragedy, which im­pels her with an Abo­rig­i­nal guide named Bil­ly (Baykali Ganam­barr) on a jour­ney up north to the city of Launce­s­ton, look­ing for re­venge through the rugged wilder­ness of a dan­ger­ous land that is far from safe to trav­el or easy to navigate.

Writ­ten by Jen­nifer Kent (The Babadook), The Nightin­gale un­folds like a road movie through in­hos­pitable land­scapes as two groups of char­ac­ters en­counter mud, filth, vi­o­lence, war and death along their way. It is clear that Kent has done a lot of re­search for the sake of au­then­tic­i­ty, and we are nev­er spared the hor­rors, like when an Abo­rig­i­nal woman is gang-raped by sol­diers or a dead man’s head is cut off and tak­en as a tro­phy by the worst type of peo­ple one could ever meet. It’s hell on Earth, but Kent is more in­ter­est­ed in the psy­cho­log­i­cal, much like what she did with The Babadook. If any­thing, this is a per­cep­tive ex­am­i­na­tion of trau­ma in a place where life is cheap and means very lit­tle, some­thing made clear when a char­ac­ter is shot dead just for yelling.

It’s a hard-hit­ting sub­ject, and Kent ap­proach­es it with the raw­ness it de­serves, opt­ing for a gray­ish palette, half-lights and rooms dim­ly lit by can­dles. Like­wise, the sparse use of mu­sic adds to the nat­u­ral­ism of what we see, mak­ing Clare and Billy’s songs stand out even more from the world’s ug­li­ness when­ev­er they sing. The bleak­ness be­comes al­most a char­ac­ter, and Kent sim­ply re­fus­es to look away from the hor­ror or di­lute its im­por­tance, even elon­gat­ing the bru­tal scenes to ex­am­ine their im­pact but with­out ever ro­man­ti­ciz­ing the vi­o­lence. And while it’s rare to see any mo­ments of hu­mor here to soft­en the blow, they also hap­pen to be sur­pris­ing­ly or­gan­ic — like when a shocked Bil­ly says af­ter see­ing Clare at­tack a man, “If that one’s your hus­band, you need an­oth­er husband.”

But more in­ter­est­ing is the po­et­ic way the film com­pares its char­ac­ters to encaged birds who yearn to be free, es­pe­cial­ly when Clare tells us the sto­ry of a fright­ened lit­tle bird call­ing for her mom to pro­tect her and take her home back to safe­ty — and lat­er on, when she com­mits a bru­tal act in the woods, the si­lence that fol­lows is only bro­ken by a faint bird­call and the flut­ter­ing wings of a bird fly­ing up in the sky, as though Clare’s soul has tak­en the first step to­wards free­dom and now can­not turn back. Fran­ciosi does a great job con­vey­ing so many emo­tions at once, such as fear, grief and anger, while let­ting us see the character’s growth from ini­tial dis­trust and prej­u­dice against Bil­ly to an in­evitable un­der­stand­ing of what unites them de­spite their cul­tur­al differences.

Those dif­fer­ences are at the cen­ter of The Nightin­gale, and they are brought home by an in­tense per­for­mance by Yol­ngu ac­tor Baykali Ganam­barr, who plays a lost man car­ry­ing in his heart the mis­ery of some­one who has seen every­thing tak­en away from him (even his dig­ni­ty as a hu­man be­ing) by ma­raud­ers who dare to use a term like “civ­i­liz­ing the land” as a eu­phemism for geno­cide and eth­nic cleans­ing. In fact, my fa­vorite mo­ment in the en­tire film is Billy’s per­plexed re­ac­tion af­ter be­ing al­lowed to eat at the ta­ble with a cou­ple of white bene­fac­tors who feel quite gen­er­ous about them­selves and yet can’t seem to re­al­ize they shouldn’t even be liv­ing there in the first place.

And that’s what makes The Nightin­gale not just a sto­ry of re­venge, but also of re­sis­tance. When Clare says, “They stole some­thing from me, and I want to get it back,” she means a lot more than she even re­al­izes. It’s about her wom­an­hood, her dig­ni­ty and self-re­spect as some­one who can’t take it any­more af­ter be­ing crushed down by such a harsh place. For two souls from com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent cul­tures who come to rec­og­nize how sim­i­lar they are in their op­pressed state, it could only seem crazy for them to ac­cept all those ab­sur­di­ties we have to­day, such as trans­pho­bic fem­i­nists, misog­y­nist blacks, Is­lam­o­pho­bic jews or racist gays. In the film’s last scene, a bit­ter­sweet but hope­ful mo­ment spells our need for a lot more em­pa­thy and union in brighter times to come.


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