Director Jennifer Kent’s 2014 breakout “The Babadook” twisted horror and grief perfectly to wide acclaim. In “The Nightingale,” Kent swaps the suspense and subtleties of her first feature for the real-life horrors of colonialism — and all the violence and crimes against humanity that go with it.
It’s 1800s Australia, and Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a wife/mother/convict, has paid her dues but remains in servitude to officer Hawkins (Sam Clafin). Things get brutally violent when Clare’s husband, Aidan (Michael Sheasby), demands her liberation, propelling Clare into a vengeance trek through the wilderness with aboriginal man-for-hire Billy (Baykali Ganambarr).
It feels like a setup of epic “Kill Bill” proportions, but Kent has something else in mind.
While other films cue supernatural invincibility in stars on a mission for blood, Kent poses that sinking into the pain and rattling your voice is the most subversive act of strength.
Franciosi (“Game of Thrones”) portrays soft and tough with equal ferocity.
In one scene, she sings an Irish lullaby with shattering beauty. The next second, she resumes a learned superiority and racist attitude over Billy. Her brow hardens, she’s not fully present — illustrating we’re either loving or hating, but never both.
Ganambarr is perfect as Billy, a man living on his native lands who doesn’t know where he came from. He is emotive, raw and subtly comical. He squawks, sings and waves his arms, invoking a youthful lightness as he explains his people are mangana, or blackbirds. It’s Ganambarr’s first film, and bravo.
Claflin is boyishly handsome and monstrously insidious as Hawkins. Kent’s script provides maybe a glimpse at this character’s soft spot, but he’s not meant to be human. Hawkins is instead an amalgam of greed, terrorizing male aggression and a fragile ego. And his character perfectly illustrates how breadcrumbs of positive reinforcement feed trauma and a mob mentality.
Cinematographer Radek Ladczuk hams up the morbid tone with earthy grays and blacks, using the wide-open wilderness as a character of its own. Kent uses her artistic eye, catching burning embers flying up to a dark silhouette of trees. A closeup kiss to an animal. Scratchy claustrophobic cuts through a forest. Kent also uses sound mixing, music and far-off murmurs to story-tell emotions and the effects of trauma.
As a whole, “The Nightingale” immerses the audience into the era, but the dialogue occasionally felt plucked out of today’s collective consciousness. “I’m not your nightingale. I belong to me and no one else,” says Clare.
The Saturday night crowd was small and Duluth-y. An audience member extended a verbal courtesy when we walked in after technical difficulties delayed the start time. Also, nothing grounds you like hearing a muttered expletive from the back during a gruesome sequence.
Trigger warning: this film has multiple rape and gang rape scenes, which do not let up. (This reviewer took a quick powder during rape number-effing-three.) So, take care.
“The Nightingale” at times felt gratuitous, long, a bit scattered. And the brutality is rough, searing images into your psyche that may take days to fade. This reviewer can’t say it’s worth it, but what Kent has built here is a unity across genders and race not often seen on screen.
And that’s worth something.
Melinda Lavine is a features reporter at the DNT. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (218) 723-5346.
Starring: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr
Director: Jennifer Kent
Writer: Jennifer Kent
Rating: Rated R for strong violent and disturbing content including rape, language throughout, and brief sexuality
Now showing: Zinema 2