Brutal. Unflinching. Hard to watch, even harder to digest.
Brilliant. Brave: Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale.
Writer and director Kent was the mastermind behind one of my favourite horror movies to date, The Babadook. I loved it so much I even purchased the handmade pop-up book from the film, where it sits proudly on my bookshelf at home. A gifted story-teller, I couldn’t wait to see what she was up to next. Following it's premiere at Venice, Sundance London picked it up to share with UK audiences ahead of it's release later this summer.
The first thing to say about her second feature is that at first glance it seems far removed from The Babadook, and yet in many ways it isn’t. The Nightingale isn’t a horror movie but the film deals with significant acts of horror. In both films we are led by the mother figure, we see things through her eyes and beyond, we follow her tortured journey. Her narrative is weaved with a sense of unease, of pain.
The film takes us to 1825 Tasmania, Australia, where Aisling Franciosi plays Claire, a beautiful, talented wide-eyed young lady hopeful for a fresh start after serving her three years of indebted servitude to the Colonial British Army. Originally from Ireland, she’s married with a newborn baby she is devoted to. As a convict she is forced to serve an Officer of the British Army, Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Hawkins, bored and frustrated by his position in what he sees as his forgotten position in the Australian Countryside, sinks low, and is determined to bring those around him down with him. In a night of rage, he commits a terrible act of violence to Claire and her family. Made determined by her overwhelming anger and need for revenge, she follows him north - enlisting the help of an Aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), putting her life in the hands of someone even more marginalised than she.
Race, class and gender all play their part here. Kent takes painstaking care to show us exactly who comes off better in every situation - the violence of the ‘big scene’ at the opening continues throughout - often without fanfare, the monstrosities becoming the new norm across the land.
There are significant moments in my life when I’ve watched a movie that has had such an impression, such an impact, that I remember all of it from start to finish. It travels with me, for years, forever embedded in my memory where I will take it out and ponder on it every once in a while. Usually these are narratives that surprise or shock, something as yet unseen. It gives the brain a little jolt of surprise and something shifts. I don’t think it’s too melodramatic to say that these films often change me. The Nightingale is 100% one of those films. It will stay with me.