Cinematic Releases: The Iron Grip of Colonialism: The Nightingale (2019) - Reviewed

Jennifer Kent's second feature film, The Nightingale (2019), is not only a revenge film, it's a ferocious dismantling of the idea of colonialism (and to a lesser extent patriarchy and the class divide) set in an Australian colony during the year 1825. What is now known as Tasmania used to be called Van Diemen's Land and it housed a British penal colony. Men and women convicted of crimes could serve out their sentences in the colony by doing hard labor or working in factories. Once they were done, they were issued a "ticket-of-leave" that allowed them to depart the colony and live out their life. The Nightingale follows a young Irish convict named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) who has been trying to earn her ticket-of-leave. She is married and has a baby, but is beholden to Leftenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) the British officer who is running the penal colony.

First off, it's imperative to address the brutality and intensity of the events in this film. A sizable portion of the audience will be turned off after the first twenty minutes. There is a rape scene that is hideously awful and there are no punches pulled in its depiction. One might question the motivation behind showing such a thing, but the entire film operates in a grim reality (and it is based on a real historical period) and it does not come off as exploitation or pure shock value. These scenes are here to make the viewer fully aware of the stakes that are at play and the true nature of the evil that was perpetrated during that time. 

After experiencing a life-changing tragedy, Clare sets out on a trek through the wilderness of Australia to find the perpetrators of her misery, and she acquires the services of a Aboriginal man named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to be her guide. This is where the film starts to subvert the tropes of other female revenge films as Clare is quite frankly, a racist person. She condescendingly refers to Billy as "boy" and treats him terribly, ordering him around like he is her slave. Usually, a revenge film paints the victim of a tragedy in a heroic light, but Clare is a much more nuanced character. She has suffered very much, but at the same time she is a product of her environment. Her relationship with Billy evolves throughout the rest of the film and it's interesting to see her discover that they both share a hate for the same system that is oppressing them. Clare is being oppressed because she is a woman and Billy because he is black. 

Colonialism affected everyone to include women, black people, and poor people. What is interesting about The Nightingale is that it shows the privilege inherent in each layer of subjugation all the way down until you get to the Aboriginal population who have absolutely no rights whatsoever. It even addresses the talking point of how people like to bring up the treatment of the Irish in conversations about mistreated minority groups as a comparison, but at the end of the day even they still had the privilege of their skin color to afford them some semblance of existence in this situation. Does this make Clare a bad person? One could argue both ways, but at the end of the day, she does hold a lot of compassion for others and is suffering from PTSD. In the society she lived in, it was hard to look outside one's own sphere of suffering to consider others.

Baykali Ganambarr is excellent as Billy as he is both pragmatic and slightly mischievous and doesn't let Clare get away with bossing him around. Aisling Franciosi puts in a hell of a performance herself and hats off to her for being able to play a character that is flawed in some aspects but noble in others. A lot of people are going to be taken aback by Sam Clafin's turn as the villain of this film, because he is absolutely sinister in this role. His good looks hide a sociopathic streak that can only be the result of having a whole lot of power with no checks-and-balances.

The Nightingale uses the now rarely used boxed-in 1.37:1 ratio which adds to the claustrophobic feel of the Australian wilderness where much of the film takes place. The middle section could use a bit of trimming down though most of the film is paced well. There are some truly gorgeous shots especially towards the end, and some surreal dream sequences as well. 

This film comes highly recommended for those with a strong enough constitution to make it through the harrowing first act. Though the theme of the film is not subtle, it is handled carefully and with respect to those who's suffering it is trying to display. These voices needed to be heard.

--Michelle Kisner