By DEIRDRE CRIMMINS
Starring Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, and Baykali Ganambarr
Written and Directed by Jennifer Kent
Jennifer Kent’s 2014 grisly maternal horror film THE BABADOOK displayed an exceptional amount of care with regards to the emotional integrity of the characters as well as an acute attention to diegetic detail. The director maintains that fine eye in her latest film, THE NIGHTINGALE, a dark, nihilist period piece never quite tips the scales from horrifying drama into a dramatic horror.
It could be argued that one way to approach genre film is from the filmmaker’s intention. Horror means to scare; romance aims to make you swoon; porn wants to turn you on; comedy tries to make you laugh. THE NIGHTINGALE is not as tidy as other more classically categorized movies, but its mission is clear: it wants to make you feel unsafe. THE NIGHTINGALE disrupts the viewing experience by refusing to contain the brutality within the film to a single character location or story arc; we are never afforded the comfort of resting between scenes or waiting for certain beats within the plot for horrors to arise. There is no safe space within THE NIGHTINGALE.
Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is a young mother and convict, under the control of the sadistic and charismatic lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Between the utter lack freedom and grueling work hours, Clare has somehow managed to find pockets of contentment with her husband, new baby, and her songs. When nearly all of that is taken from her, in an ongoing barrage of sexual violence and unprovoked rage, Clare knows she will do anything to get revenge.
Clare hires an aboriginal guide Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). In this era, the entire world is so drenched in racism that they cannot even see that it exists, and Clare now has to rely on a man who is not even seen as human in her world. Together they set out across the bush to find Hawkins. At any moment is it possible that they encounter someone or something that wants them dead, knowing full well their lives are literally worthless.
It would be easy to translate the struggles Billy and Clare face into today’s modern context. That universality of adversity is certainly one of the strengths of THE NIGHTINGALE and our emotional inroad to empathy for both of them, but that comparison strips the crucial historical context from their predicament. While we might sometimes feel trapped by circumstances or owned by evil men, Billy and Clare are literally without options.
Kent’s attention to historical detail is astounding. Each word, accent, gesture, and smirk sinks the audience deeper into time and place. The reactions, or lack thereof in some cases, to the brutality of fists and attitudes paints a full picture of not only how difficult their lives must have been, but of how unaware they are of any possible alternative. The costumes and sets all enhance the world of THE NIGHTINGALE nearly to the degree of being able to smell the rot.
Without hope and bloated with malice, THE NIGHTINGALE insists upon denying anyone a space of comfort and safety. Anyone needing cinematic catharsis or a warm fuzzy feeling leaving should stay far away from any theater showing this movie.