The Nightingale review: Outback trauma – then sweet revenge

Already infamous thanks to its brutal rape and murder scenes (which have caused faintings and walk-outs at festivals), this anti-colonial period drama from Jennifer Kent tracks the progress of an Irish convict in Tasmania. Walking to the screening, I felt sick to my stomach. Thirty minutes in, I was rigid with distress.

The most shocking thing about this shocking film? When it was over, I felt like I’d been released from a warm hug. Kent’s yummily disturbing debut The Babadook was a love story between a single mum and her “problem” child. This is a love story too.

Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an indentured servant who can’t escape the grip of her owner — a petulant, sensitive Northerner, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Employing Claflin was a stroke of genius. As well as being a fine actor, he’s the most conventionally good-looking member of the cast. His Hawkins is the sort of creature you never get in fairy tales: a beauty and irredeemable beast.

Though Hawkins destroys Clare’s world, there’s no one to hold him accountable. Except Clare. Hawkins undertakes a trek through the bush, with only a few deputies and an Aboriginal guide. Clare hires her own native, the wry, cynical Billy (newcomer Baykali Ganambarr) to follow them. The pair enter the forest a day later.

It’s very convenient, of course, that Hawkins only has a few men with him. Revenge epics, by their nature, are contrived and The Nightingale is no exception. It’s hard for underdogs to get the jump on their tormentors because — duh! — the tormentors can afford protection.

Compelling: Aisling Franciosi as Clare, an Irish convict who tracks her abuser through the bush to seek revenge
Compelling: Aisling Franciosi as Clare, an Irish convict who tracks her abuser through the bush to seek revenge

What storytellers have to do in order to create suspense is to make the goodies ridiculously lucky and/or make the bad people ridiculously decent (remember that bit in Kill Bill where Bill suddenly orders his stooge not to murder an unconscious Beatrix Kiddo? If only all real-life sadists were that thoughtful.)

Anyway, here a string of powerful people behave with a degree of moral rectitude, putting Hawkins in a vulnerable position and giving Clare and Billy a fighting chance. Luckily, while that may not be realistic, it’s still intensely dramatic because we have no idea what Clare and Billy will do to Hawkins and his men when they get their window of opportunity.

Kent films fecund and twisted trees, often at night. And collects oppressively vivid sounds. She does this with the same sort of care shown by Stanley Kubrick in his epic Barry Lyndon. The sense of place is overwhelming.

Though Clare initially treats Billy with contempt, the pair discover common ground. If Billy was a sexless saint (or a blank, fetishised exotic) his relationship with Clare would be cringeworthy. And if Clare’s sexual trauma was “healed” by an affair with Billy, it would also be gross.

The rape scenes involving Clare, by the way, are deft. None of the ugly language or behaviour feels gratuitous and the camera angles ensure her point of view dominates. She’s not a piece of meat. The rape of an indigenous woman later in the movie is more complicated.

Kent, obviously determined to be historically accurate, puts the character in a costume that leaves one breast exposed. Yucky rape scenes designed to arouse invariably involve exposed female flesh. Will some viewers be excited when this partially clad woman is violated? One could argue that’s not Kent’s problem. But it is a problem that the rape of the non-white woman is given less weight and, visually, feels so much more familiar. It’s a rare mis-step. And it certainly doesn’t take away from Ganambarr and Franciosi’s work. She is particularly compelling in the bits where Clare is tripped up by ghosts from her past.

Ganambarr is especially subtle during a dinner at which Billy is invited to sit at the table with white people and starts to cry (they are not tears of gratitude). Both actors are worthy of breakout star awards. And both have lovely singing voices. Franciosi’s rendition of the Gaelic ballad Óró Sé Do Bheatha ’Bhaile, a favourite of Irish rebels in the 20th Century — it’s also been recorded by Sinéad O’Connor — is beyond stirring.

Another Jennifer (Jennifer Lee) has just directed a movie which pivots on colonial crimes and fiercely tender songs. Frozen II and The Nightingale: what a brain-melting double bill. Can someone please make it happen?