After the surprise success of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014), horror aficionados waited with bated breath to see what her next project would be. Rather than crafting another horror film, Kent opted to write and direct the brutal colonialist epic, The Nightingale. This is a revenge drama, and not at all a horror film, yet the Sundance crowds anxiously awaiting admittance seemed to operate under the misapprehension that it was. Their confusion about the film’s genre is understandable — The Nightingale is a painfully brutal film, one with horrors that far exceed Kent’s previous film, even if it’s not horror per se. It seethes with anger and grief, and confirms Kent’s emotive abilities.
Set in 1825 on the island now known as Tasmania, The Nightingale concerns the atrocities enacted by British soldiers, both against the convicts who have been transported to the island as well as the dwindling numbers of Aboriginal people. Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish woman transported after a theft conviction, leads a dull, monotonous life of service for the soldiers of a nearby barracks. She finds moments of pleasure among the doldrums thanks to her husband and her new baby. Her gift is song, and she sings Irish tunes when alone to occupy herself and soothe her young infant. As comforting as her vocal gift is, it also plays a role in her future torments.
When Clare is summoned to sing at a banquet for a visiting captain, she catches the eye of nearly every soldier, most of whom are drunk and haven’t been with a woman in months or years. We learn that Clare is actually an indentured servant in the service of the commanding lieutenant; he has vouched for her, allowing for her release from prison, and her eventual marriage and child. She is three months overdue for her release from servitude, as the lieutenant continually delays writing her letter of release. After her performance before the troops, something snaps, and the lieutenant’s frustrations with Clare and the violent lust of the soldiers collide. In a painfully disturbing scene, she is raped by the lieutenant and his sergeant, while her husband and baby are slaughtered. Clare survives the encounter, and the next morning she sets off to kill the lieutenant and his men. Fueled by anger and grief, she commandeers a horse and hires an Aboriginal guide named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to lead her toward the soldiers, who have marched toward the northern part of the island.
There’s much that’s bloody and disturbing in The Nightingale, but Kent never slips into a Tarantino-esque revenge fantasy. She keeps her story firmly rooted in its period details; we’re always aware of the great difficulties Clare faces in merely traveling on her own, let alone in killing the men who have destroyed her family. None of her friends can help her, as they would be sent back to prison. She’s unable to find supplies or shelter on the journey, as few people are willing to help a woman without an accompanying man. And every man she meets along her trek through the Tasmanian forests wishes violence upon her.
But just as she foregrounds the dangers facing women during the period, Kent pays close attention to the ravages of colonialism and racism — not even Clare is blameless. She seethes with anger and distrust during her first couple days with Billy; it’s only her need to survive long enough to dispatch the lieutenant that keeps her from gunning him down. Clare’s own racism is a difficult but wise choice from Kent. A lesser filmmaker would have tried to suggest that because of the daily misogyny Clare experiences, she would be more understanding and accepting of the Aboriginal people. But of course, that’s hogwash — she’s been bathed in the same racism that affects most of the other white people on the island. Clare is infected with many of the same vile beliefs that animate the soldiers she’s pursuing, but that doesn’t make her quest any less compelling.
Most compelling of all, though, is Franciosi’s performance. The Irish-Italian actress has a wonderfully compelling face that seems to bump every emotion up to ten. It’s hard to see the look of grief on her face in the wake of her family’s slaughter without bursting into tears yourself. When she switches into revenge mode, she seems possessed by some foreign spirit. Ganambarr’s talents are less showy, but he gains a marvelous determination as Clare’s quest merges with his own.
Almost as impressive as Franciosi’s performance is Sam Claflin’s as the lieutenant. Claflin initially seems like a respectable man, before revealing himself to be a misogynist and rapist. But as the film progresses and he treks north in search of a promotion, he unleashes unexpected levels of depravity. The transformation could easily have seemed forced, a poor attempt to make him an even bigger villain, but Claflin makes the descent into evil both compelling and totally believable.
Some Nightingale viewers have apparently been disappointed that Kent didn’t make another horror film as her Babadook follow-up. As one of the few people who never cared for that film, it was refreshing to see just how much more developed and moving The Nightingale is compared to its predecessor. The Babadook was a clever idea executed with workmanlike care, but The Nightingale is a film made of flesh and bone, one that lives and breathes — and bleeds.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on January 31, as part of our coverage of the Sundance Film Festival.