By Andrea Thompson
“The Nightingale” is the kind of well-meaning movie white women typically specialize in. It’s saddening, because this is the second film from Australian director Jennifer Kent, who so wowed with her first feature “The Babadook.”
The problem is Kent focuses on the bloody history of her country’s past, and seems unable to look past its admittedly rampant violence. We see it through the eyes of Clare (the revelatory Aisling Franciosi), an Irish woman who has been transported to Tasmania for her crimes. She may not be in chains, but she might as well be, so firmly is she trapped in her harsh rural environment, ruled over by the British.
Clare earns the titular nickname because of her (forced) habit of singing to entertain the soldiers tasked with keeping order. She has the very much unwanted attentions of a high-ranking one, Hawkins (Sam Claflin, going against type after playing heartthrob roles in films such as “The Hunger Games” movies and “Me Before You”), who rapes and abuses her daily. Her form of solace and sanity is the home she still manages to have her infant child and loving husband, who is ignorant as to the true extent of Clare’s suffering.
When Clare’s husband demands that Hawkins serve his wife with the papers that will free her after stalling for months, Hawkins and his underlings respond in a brutal fashion that may be too much even for those who will be appreciative of the “The Nightingale” as a whole. When Hawkins departs on a journey to a distant town to secure a promotion, Clare follows them, vengeance in her mind and heart. For help, she enlists the aid of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), who has a traumatic past of his own.
Their partnership doesn’t start off well, even if it’s more realistic for Clare having some issues of her own with Billy. Her suffering certainly hasn’t made her more enlightened in terms of race, as she refers to Billy as boy, and expects him to conform to her expectations accordingly. When he saves her life early on in their journey, she doesn’t even thank him. They of course eventually begin to bond, first mostly over their shared hatred of the British, then naturally, their shared humanity, as Clare’s losses are similar to Billy’s. Too bad Aboriginial women don’t get the same treatment.
We do see many losses as Clare and Billy track Hawkins and his band as they make their way across the country. We didn’t need to know they were irredeemable, but they prove it time and again with the havoc they wreak, mostly on the lives of other Aboriginal people, which is where the failings of “Nightingale” become mind-bogglingly apparent. Granted, my knowledge of this period is passable at best, but I’m willing to bet that people of color did other things beside die horrifically violent deaths, both then and now.
Not as bad, but still hypocritical, is how “Nightingale endeavors to preach against vengeance while having everyone who wronged Clare die a violent death. In fairness, even those who have earned it most still perish in a sickeningly realistic fashion. No glamorizing here, but the end result is still the same, with Clare managing to avoid the worst consequences. In the end, there’s a certain admiration due for how Jennifer Kent is uncompromising in her mission to bring the ugliness of colonialism to light in all its horror.
Yet Kent’s devotion to showing Clare’s fracturing state of mind also gets grating, as she wanders, physically as well as mentally, from haunting nightmares to her just as nightmarish reality. A little editing could have worked wonders, since the film’s languid pace near the end means even the violence becomes a dull monotonous slog. Anytime “Nightingale” focuses on Clare’s personal story, it’s a tale that still resonates today to a despairing degree, but the wider world needs that the same respect, rather than being painted with the same blood-soaked brush.