I grew up in a feminist household. My mother, resenting the limitations of the housewife role, enrolled in college, and woke up to the manipulative and damaging effects of the patriarchy. As the youngest of eight children whose parents divvied up family chores according to strict gender lines, I saw right through the ridiculous role-playing exercises our society demanded of us. Boys would take out the garbage and mow the lawn while the girls would set the table and do the dishes. One day, one of my sisters turned to my father and said, “Dad, I wasn’t born with a dishwashing gene.” A light bulb went off in my seven-year-old head. She’s right! My world had been turned upside down! Chores don’t come with genitals! I consider myself so lucky to not have to struggle with this issue and to be able to see the world through this lens.
Jennifer Kent, who made a splash with her debut thriller, The Babadook, understands how to present feminism on film with her brutal, unblinking, unforgiving, follow-up, The Nightingale. She spares no details and never looks away in this excessively and rightfully violent revenge saga driven by female rage. Set in Tasmania, then called Van Diemen’s Land, in 1825, the film drops us into the English colonization period where European prisoners were sent over into a life of indentured servitude. An Irish family, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), her sweet husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and their baby, live in service to Lieutenant Hawkins (a scarily convincing Sam Claflin), a sadistic, abusive man who refuses to keep his promise and set the family free. Forced to drudge work and occasionally trotted out in front of the troops to regale them with her beautiful singing voice, Clare begs for her freedom and suffers violently for it. Things get much worse when Aidan attempts to reason with the Lieutenant, leading Clare on a mission to seek revenge against Hawkins, who has fled north to gain a promotion.
Unable to find anyone to voluntarily help her on her quest, Clare hires Billy (first time natural Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal whose population has been enslaved or killed. The bulk of the film follows them as they risk their lives with every step through the Australian forests. Through them we experience their differing experiences of subjugation at the hands of white men. Her singing voice notwithstanding, Clare presents herself as a fierce, tight-jawed warrior throughout. Unafraid to point her gun at Billy, she orders him around in the manner so many of the oppressed have done historically. When there’s someone lower in stature, humans naturally gravitate to overpower them. In this case, Clare does so for her survival. Despite their relationship growing closer as the story progresses, Clare disturbingly forces Billy at gunpoint to march in front of her when they cross paths with a group of white slaveholders. Either way, this pairing appropriately lacks even a hint of sentimentality, and the film excels because of it.
At nearly two and a half hours, the film seems to drag on forever, but Kent’s pacing feels intentional. She wants us to understand how hard it was/is to live as an “other” in this world. Clare’s gender has left her destined to a life of violent assault whereas the color of Billy’s skin has put him on the outside looking in at his own homeland, his entire culture decimated. Although careful not to equivocate the pair’s experiences, together, they form an inspiring, anger-fueled resistance. By the end, in a perfect final moment, you feel the effects of the connection they forged. Franciosi has a fierce, fearless Jennifer Lawrence quality to her acting. She’s powerful, focused, unexpected and intense throughout. It’s a perfect marriage of actor, director and theme, all united to convey the step-by-step agony of living in a white man’s world. Ganambarr’s performance feels timeless, even current as he laments the life he’s lost and the beautiful society he helped create.
I didn’t love The Babadook. I admired the performances and the directing, but I felt the horror elements came across a little undercooked. I wanted much bigger set pieces. Still, Kent knows how to build a sense of dread and despair with her fluid, gripping sense of style. With her new film, she abandons almost everything we’ve seen from her to serve this particular story. The Nightingale feels like it was made in the time period presented. With minimal camera movement and a square aspect ratio, Kent, using her cinematographer Radek Ladczuk once again, keeps things very, very simple. It works so effectively in forcing the audience to feel every moment. The violence in the film, and yes, it’s horrific, goes on much longer than an audience may feel comfortable, and that’s the point. Rape is no joke. Murder isn’t entertaining. The sounds of a baby crying or a woman screaming or a husband pleading for his wife’s life must be heard for what they are, and Kent won’t let her audience off the hook. A short fantasy sequence gives us echoes of her prior film’s haunting style, but for the most part, Kent employs bold, simple technique. She wants nothing to dull the impact. With these two films, Kent has established herself as a genre tweaker.
By the end, I felt assaulted, wrung out, yet still filled with a sense of hope. Despite references to The Searchers, Kent has her own unique take on a Western style story. She doesn’t deconstruct them like Clint Eastwood did with Unforgiven, but she has something to say. Those in power will always try to divide and conquer. The oppressed can only overcome if they unite. We can do much better in a world not ruled solely by white men. If this sounds highly relevant to the here and now, it’s no accident. The Nightingale will haunt your dreams and the waking nightmare we’re all currently experiencing.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. The Nightingale gets a 5 out of 50. Someone refers to the Lieutenant as a “sodomite” but it remains unexplored. Using the language and comfort levels of its time, Kent subtly seems to say that his repressed sexuality leads to his explosions of violence. It’s merely a hint, and thus doesn’t really add up to much.
By Glenn Gaylord
The Nightingale is currently playing on limited release in US theatres and will expand to other territories late August and early September.