The Nightingale review: A brutal, unflinching look at colonialism’s darkest impulses

Dir: Jennifer Kent. Cast: Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Sam Claflin, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie. 18 cert, 136 mins.

Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is a film that bruises the soul. It allows colonialism’s darkest impulses to play out in full, as the camera watches – steady and unblinking. The violence will be too much for some. Indeed, the film’s already caused a stir, with reports of walk-outs and disruption at its festival screenings. But Kent treats this approach to history as vital and necessary, since we otherwise risk its lessons being softened and our need for culpability evaded.

Set in 1820s Tasmania – then known as Van Diemen’s Land – the story follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irishwoman sent to the island’s penal colony because of a petty crime. She’s served her seven-year sentence and now has a husband and child, but is still trapped in indentured servitude under a British officer named Hawkins (Sam Claflin). She is due her freedom but when she asks for it he responds by raping her – his demonstration that she is property to him, nothing more. When her husband attempts to intervene, the result is a chain reaction of unspeakable brutality. Clare’s robbed of everything she holds dear. Hawkins, meanwhile, escapes north with his cronies to chase a promotion he’ll never receive.

The next time we see Clare, she’s unrecognisable. Franciosi’s ability to transform from a warm, loving woman into a hollow shell is remarkable – it’s in the lowered brow, the face drained of colour, and the lips pulled back into a permanent snarl. Her body has been emptied of life and replaced only with a hunger for retribution. Kent uses the tighter, more square Academy aspect ratio, often resting on Franciosi’s face in close-up. The effect feels all the more oppressive, as if the sides of the screen itself are threatening to close in on her and swallow her up. Setting off after Hawkins, she hires an Aboriginal tribesman named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr, whose weariness here is heart-breaking) as her guide. She treats him as property, just as she was once treated. Over time, this changes. The two form an unspoken but powerful bond.

Yet Kent, crucially, doesn’t allow her story to slip into an apologetic tale of white redemption. It’s not that simple. Clare and Billy slowly realise they’re victims of the divide-and-conquer strategy of their oppressors. In order to deflect from its own horrors, the British empire had a way of turning people against each other – whether along lines of class, religion, gender or race. The film doesn’t conflate the suffering of a white Irishwoman with that of an Aboriginal man, but it does examine the mechanics by which oppression works. Hawkins’ monstrous entitlement – his anger so deep, it courses through every vein – comes partially from a belief that a rank and a title make up the entirety of man’s self-worth. This brutality is one that’s filtered down from the top, through Hawkins, his ghoulish cronies (Harry Greenwood and Damon Herriman), and even the young boy who seeks acceptance among the men.

The Nightingale is Kent’s follow-up to 2014’s The Babadook, a startling debut that understood how useful horror can be in crafting powerful metaphors. Here, she looks to the revenge western, but finds ways to undermine its conventions. Payback is far from straightforward. The wilderness isn’t presented as a dangerous ordeal that our characters must survive. Instead, this landscape of grey, knotty trees is a silent observer of mankind’s true capacity for evil.

The Nightingale is released in UK cinemas on 29 November