[Originally written in April as part of coverage from the International Film Festival Boston]
“The Nightingale,” director Jennifer Kent’s sophomore effort, following “The Babadook,” desperately wants to be delve into the white man’s history of violence, particularly towards women.
Set in 18th Century Tasmania, where the Brits are colonizing the Aussies, the film’s main protagonist is an Irish convict by the name of Clare (Aisling Franciosi) who is not just a house prisoner but a slave to an English lieutenant named Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Clare was supposed to be released three months ago, but her letter of recommendation for release keeps getting delayed by Hawkins who uses her beautiful Gaelic voice to sooth his staff during drunk nights, not to mention her body to sooth his sexual needs. Enter Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby), taking care of their infant son and with not the slightest idea of the goings on between his wife and Hawkins. Hawkins has raped Clare multiple times, and Aidan does eventually find out in a poignant admission from his wife — this confession infuriates him and leads him to confront Hawkins at the local pub about it. Bad idea. In a scene of grisly unabashed violence, Hawkins shoots and kills Aidan, proceeds to have he and his men take turns in raping Clare and then, as if that wasn’t enough, kills her baby child. This is the basic setup for our protagonist to seek revenge on these men; with the help of an Aboriginal guide named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) they set out to the wild west in search of the antagonists. There will be much blood. There will also be much self-indulgence.
“The Nightingale” is a road movie set in the Outback, with Clare and Billy stalking this trio of evil-doing Englishmen. Kent means to throw feminist allegories against man’s shameful history of violence against women. Despite the best efforts from ace cinematographer Radek Ladczuk, who makes this a visually stunning film, especially influenced by American Westerns, especially John Ford’s “The Searchers,” the showy naturalism and dreamy sequences ring false. Yes, Franciosi is a hell of a find, ditto Ganambarr as her irrecoverably spiritual sidekick, but the excessive and repetitively brutal violence doesn’t mesh well with Kent’s artful pretensions. You are never really sure if what you are watching is a B-movie or self-serious arthouse. There are five, yes five, rape scenes featured in “The Nightingale,” not to mention a dozen or so brutal murders, but the film’s 136-minute runtime is absolutely unnecessary, especially for a film that keeps looking for any kind of identity throughout its messy narrative. There is no groove or flow sustained by Kent, just the delirious need to deliver artsy shocks.[C]