Nightingale review Aisling Franciosi Baykali Ganambarr

Year: 2018
Director(s): Jennifer Kent
Writer(s): Jennifer Kent
Region of Origin: AU
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Rating: R
Digital, Color, 136 mins

Synopsis: An Irish immigrant teams up with an Aboriginal tracker in order to seek revenge. (Source)

There were four words that came into my mind midway through Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale: Jennifer Kent is fearless. While she used playful kitsch and a hyper-stylized boogeyman to conquer grief in The Babadook, her latest features a more grounded, unavoidable type of evil. Created in collaboration with Aboriginal elders in Australia, this is a cold, hard reflection of colonialism, replete with graphic depictions of sexual violence, murder and revenge. It’s one of the hardest films I’ve ever had to watch, but if we’re being honest, a rewarding one all the same. Many will argue that Kent may have gone too far in some aspects, but there isn’t a single second that feels exploitive or superfluous. It’s a film that subverts genre and puts us straight into the bleak reality of human nature. It’s also a call for compassion and understanding. 

In 1800s Tasmania, Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict serving time as the indentured servant of a British officer named Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Though she’s been allowed to marry and has a baby, Hawkins still treats Clare as his property. She’s past the point of paying her debt, but is unable to be set free of her contract. Tensions boil during an inspection of Hawkins’ leadership capabilities. He snaps, catching Clare in his crossfire and exacting an act of unspeakable proportions. As Hawkins and his men promptly trek the Tasmanian wilds for a promotion, Claire follows close behind. After enlisting the unwitting help of local Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), her mission is to make Hawkins pay for what he’s done. While Clare and Billy understandably hate each other, they’re forced to forge an alliance that transcends their preconceived prejudices. 

Kent lures us in with a vengeance plot, but what she has in store is much more layered. As she puts us within the shoes of her characters, a sobering picture of survival through unity comes into focus. Every turn in Clare and Billy’s journey takes them to unexpected places. How each of them react is telling of who they are, where they’ve come from and the unknown spaces in which both of their lives overlap. Clare and Billy’s microcosm of prejudice and fear ends up unearthing unsaid racial hatred – not just toward each other, but also from the world that lays just beyond the fringes of their journey. As these two witness unspeakable horrors, every part of their torment feels honest. In this way, Kent forces us to confront evils we know existed, but couldn’t humanize in this way. Needless to say, the film’s reliance on experiential narrative breaches our comfort zones. Through every step of the way, Kent opts to have viewers experience and feel the story in a way that’s inescapable and unpleasant yet always purposeful. 

Nightingale Aisling Franciosi review

With the story’s macro focused narrative, a tight handful of performances shine. Aisling Franciosi’s Clare never bows to being a caricature. Instead, Franciosi’s performance keeps things real and grounded, both emotionally and physically. Her transformation is never less than fascinating throughout, evoking pain, anger, and finally, something unexpected. At a time when “Strong Female Characters” are bountiful but rarely breaking a very masculine mold, Franciosi is a breath of fresh air. Holding the stage equally is Baykali Ganambarr’s Billy. Ganambarr is one of the year’s best discoveries. As Billy, he weathers awful situations oft times with wit and a lot of understated pain. Ganambarr has a presence and charisma that leaps off the screen, rending his character with quiet strength and resilience. Together, Franciosi and Ganambarr are incredible, forging a union that never goes where we expect. On a practical yet more slight level, Sam Claflin and Damon Herriman are two baddies who we grow to hate. Their depictions of human corruption and frailty are harrowing to witness.

All of the film’s savagery eventually leads to an unexpected third act. Opening things up beyond Clare and Billy’s story, Kent hones in on an unsaid connection between all of us, no matter who we are or where we’ve come from. It’s an unpredictable and earned outcome, transcending all the violence and suffering in the film without erasing what it took to get there. It also doesn’t neatly tie things up or oversimplify. In that sense, Kent has crafted a bitter pill that’s undeniably hard to stomach. It’s ferocious and unforgiving, dissecting the past in order to showcase how a history of wrongdoing and fear continues to this very day. It’s worth noting though, that the film’s resolution ultimately leans toward a more graceful, albeit complicated end. Splicing pinches of surreal spirituality with a story that doesn’t pull punches, The Nightingale proves Kent as the real deal. She’s a gifted storyteller who isn’t afraid to go all the way, and certainly has a lot to say about the deep trauma and pain that both destroy and unite us.