The 19th century-set Australian film is a powerful, emotionally shattering experience, and one of the most memorable movies so far this year.
It’s far too accomplished to be reduced to a revenge story with some brutal rape scenes, as those walkouts threaten to do.
Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut was the terrifying, acclaimed horror movie The Babadook, but The Nightingale deals with a different kind of monster, one that’s more pervasive with a legacy that we’re still contending with today: Australia’s ugly colonial past.
On Van Diemen’s Land, Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict who has served her time, but is still indentured to a Hawkins (Sam Claflin), a British army officer with a sadistic streak.
Hawkins brutalises Clare in one of those confronting scenes that caused such audience consternation. When Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) demands Hawkins release Clare, Hawkins retaliates, and he and his two soldier cronies, Ruse (Damon Herriman) and Jago (Harry Greenwood), kill Clare’s husband and baby.
The Nightingale trailer — Directed by Jennifer Kent
Given Clare is Irish, a convict and a woman, she finds no official justice, and decides to pursue Hawkins herself when he sets off overland through the dangerous bush to Launceston to claim a promotion.
Clare recruits an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) with the upfront payment of one coin and the promise of more once they reach their destination.
The dynamic between Clare and Billy is The Nightingale’s most interesting, highlighting how even someone who’s been as marginalised as Clare can still feel superior to someone else whose social standing is below theirs.
It’s the uncomfortable cycle of hatred and discrimination, especially in an environment that is as socially limiting as colonial Australia — there’s always someone beneath you, someone else to redirect to the cruelty people fling at you.
Despite their mistrust, Clare and Billy have to rely on each other if they’re going to make it out alive.
Franciosi, an Irish-Italian actor with few credits before this, is incredible as Clare, a woman pushed to the edge and bent on justice — she is an absolute force.
Ganambarr’s beautifully moving performance is layered with loss and grief, and will strike you when you least expect it.
Kent is a talented, bold filmmaker who not only chooses challenging stories, but crafts films that are perfectly balanced in tone and feature stunning and tender moments just when the darkness seems overwhelming.
People may feel justified in walking out of The Nightingale because the rape and murder scenes are quite graphic, but that’s the point. It wants the audience to confront Australia’s history, which, for many, was horrendously brutal.
There’s no papering over how certain lives, especially Aboriginal lives, were completely devalued by a lot of people in power — and not even merely those with institutional power, but just by being one rung above them.
It’s a truth that Australians are obstinately allergic to, denying or minimising it every opportunity.
The Nightingale is ferociously effective at making sure you don’t forget and makes no apologies for making you distressed.
The Nightingale is in cinemas now
Share your movies and TV obsessions | @wenleima