DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: JENNIFER KENT | STARRING: AISLING FRANCIOSI, SAM CLAFLIN, BAYKALI GANAMBARR | RELEASE DATE: NOVEMBER 29TH
The unexpected success of The Babadook has given writer/director Jennifer Kent freedom to try any project she wants. Choosing a sprawling two and a quarter hour period epic set in 1830s Tasmania, coupled with a tone of grim violence graphic enough to cause cinema walkouts, seems like one of the more ambitious things she could have tried. But fortunately she has the talent needed to match the ambition.
The film begins with Clare Carroll (Franciosi), a new mother and ex-convict tapped in indentured servitude to a clearly smitten Lieutenant Hawkins (Claflin) desperate to be allowed to move away with her husband Aidan. When this is refused things spiral out of control and Aisling is liberated of her responsibilities and filled with desire for vengeance against Lieutenant Hawkins.
The Nightingale is 100% a revenge drama, probably best compared to The Revenant (but less boring, with more point, more cultural sensitivity to indigenous people and better shot scenery) where the anger of one woman drives both the action and the lead herself through threatening environments, injuries, grief and, most importantly, her own bigotry, to bring the man who destroyed her world to justice. As the villain of the piece, Lieutenant Hawkin is perhaps too broadly drawn, corrupting everything he touches with a vague sense of bored inevitability rather than pleasure, Claflin occasionally rendering him as somewhere between pantomime villain and, what this writer would call, ‘sulky bellend’. However, he is less relevant to the film than Clare’s anger. In this Aisling Franciosi is a captivating onscreen presence and her rage, when it emerges, genuinely terrifying.
Clare is assisted, initially deeply begrudgingly, by indigenous Tasmanian Billy who knows the treacherous territory between them and Hawkins like the back of his hand. There is no disguising the obvious racism in Clare’s attitudes to him and the language, authentic to the period, is shocking to modern sensibilities. But their shared quest soon sees the cultural barriers between them breaking down, allowing Clare to see the true monstrousness of what her fellow whites, not just Lieutenant Hawkins and his ilk whose task is to ‘tame the land’, have done to the indigenous Tasmanians (making Hawkins wrongdoings to her somewhat pale by comparison).
The film is beautifully crafted but unquestionably overlong, not because 136 minutes is too long, but simply that it loses its way, dragging out the simple revenge plotline to allow other layers to come into the film that are insufficiently deeply handled to fill the space. In a way there are two films here, both potentially incredible, fighting for attention to the detriment of one another, so, while The Nightingale is a gruelling and masterfully shot film, it is sadly not the masterpiece we might have hoped for.