Let’s watch the most affecting film of the year.
The Nightingale is Jennifer Kent’s (director of The Babadook) new film and it has proven to be a bit divisive. We follow Clare (Aisling Franciosi—who deserves an Oscar nom, but won’t get one because this movie actually makes us ask hard questions) who is working off a conviction under the brutal and inept English lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Clafin). Hawkins abuses Clare for his own amusement and takes out his own frustrations about his place in power on her sexually. Clare is the victim of rape, and the two long sequences are difficult to watch,
When Hawkins is emasculated by a British Captain, he takes some men and gang rapes Clare, murders her husband, and has one of his men beat her baby to death. He also orders Jago (Harry Greenwood) to “finish it” but Jago’s assault of Clare does not kill her. The next morning, near insane with trauma and rage, Clare goes after Hawkins with the help of native guide Billy (Baykali Ganambarr—who also deserves on Oscar nom, but won’t get one because this film is about racism and in a way that doesn’t make white people heroes). In the crossing of the wilderness, our two traumatized and troubled individuals contend with horrific violence based on gender and race.
Kent (who deserves an Oscar nom—but won’t get one because this film isn’t meant to make everything seem rosy) pulls no punches. The violence is shocking, disturbing, and done from the victim’s perspective. This film completely upends the rape-revenge genre into something raw and critical. We are forced to contend with the barbaric and shocking history of those in power abusing those who are disenfranchised.
I have heard others say that this film is done through rage—or that perhaps it is too angry. We should be angry at these incidents. By not showing the rawness and the awfulness (including Clare’s own vicious racism) we do an injustice to the dead. You’re damn right I was angry watching this movie. I am also angry that it seems like a lot of people are dismissing this and most likely this film will be a box office flop.
The stakes of the narrative are clear. The film is done in a nearly perfect way. Every. Frame. Matters.
Trauma is tough to portray, and Clare showcases anger, terror, madness, and depression through her eyes (Franciosi can act without speaking or moving). She does not speak often, but when she does we get a look into how damaged her psyche is. The crimes committed against her have shaken her to her core and she is unable to fully cope. Billy, who has experienced racial and ethnic violence seems more comfortable with coping, and does so through anger, song, and detachment. It takes Clare a long time to recognize that her and Billy are carrying similar baggage, and it is a powerful moment when they agree that the British suck.
Justice is elusive in the film, and tragically, it also seems elusive in real life. The senselessness and horror of these situations is presented without ever looking away. The movie asks what will happen when all the women are raped, all the men killed, and all the children murdered. Political, racial, and sexual violence is presented as the sickness that it is, and how pervasive such structures can be. Don’t expect easy answers or even a true catharsis. The Nightingale shows how easily power is abused and how this reality is often how the world works.
I found this film to be completely engrossing. In my opinion, this is a nearly flawless film and certainly the best film I have seen in years. Kent has proven to be a filmmaker who can rattle you and make something that will stay with you for a long time. It is rare to see a work of art that you know will ultimately make it into your top-ten best ever.
However, this movie is challenging. We have four brutal rape scenes and other shocking moments of violence. This movie will devastate you. I think it is worth seeing and studying, but approach with caution.