THE NIGHTINGALE (2018, streaming on Shudder, though it’s not really a horror movie) by writer/director Jennifer Kent, creator of the successful horror film THE BABBADOOK (2014), is a brutal exploration of colonialism, exploitation, power, and revenge. While it softens in the last act, I found it compelling for its tension, unflinching brutality, and fantastic performances, notably by Baykali Ganambarr, Aisling Franciosi, and Sam Claflin.
Set in 1825, the film begins at a military outpost in an Australian penal colony where a war against the native aboriginals is brewing and, where Clare lives in indentured servitude with her husband and baby. While overdue for release due to time served, the dapper but psychopathic lieutenant refuses to let his “nightingale”–so named because she sings for him and his drunken, loutish soldiers–go, and he treats her harshly as a sexual toy. After a tragic series of events, Clare sets out in the bush with an aboriginal tracker named Billy on a grisly mission of revenge.
The film was criticized for its graphic depictions of rape, which when combined with casual murder make this an uncompromisingly nasty film, though none of it is celebrated so much as held up for inspection with a dare to look away, similar to COME AND SEE. But this was a nasty time in a nasty place, where brutality endlessly cascades downhill from the British officers to their soldiers to women and indentured servants to the aboriginals who are losing everything. As such, the film is an indictment of colonialism by showing its everyday consequences on real people.
Clare makes an impressive and sympathetic avenging angel, while Billy is portrayed with an amazing combination of ferocity, defiance, and sympathy by acting first-timer Baykali Ganambarr. The trek is full of hardships, and they come to care for each other as they grow increasingly united by cause and a realization they share the same place on the world’s totem pole. The acting, tension, and the wild setting’s frontier immersion are all extremely well done.
In the last act, however, the story takes a turn in an unexpected direction–notably a big character shift in Clare–that felt wonky and wasn’t quite as satisfying for me, and the ending didn’t have quite the punch it might have if it had maintained its momentum. Overall, though, I really liked the film, which I found rich, compelling, and thoughtful.