THE NIGHTINGALE – One of the Best Australian Films Ever Produced

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since Jennifer Kent’s sublime horror THE BABADOOK. A new Aussie feature director came out of nowhere and released one of the best horror films in years. Kent has kept her head down and botbot up and has spent this time between movies writing and creating a revenge tale of colonial injustice and Australian historic disgrace.

THE NIGHTINGALE has so far won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, the Best Young Actor Award for Baykali Ganambarr at the same festival, recently won the Critics Award at the Melbourne Film Festival and the Critics Award for Jennifer Kent at Miami’s film festival.

But that’s not to say it’s without controversy. The film has received a lot of negative criticism because the violence is quite unrelenting and confronting to the point the cast had clinical psychologists on set during the more harrowing scenes.

THE NIGHTINGALE is out this Thursday August 29th in Australia from the wonderful folks at Transmission Films. It is rated MA15+ and runs for 136mins. I need to place a warning here – there are multiple rape scenes in THE NIGHTINGALE and they could be hard to view for some audience members.

The Nightingale Sam Claflin
Sam Claflin

BY JASON KING

THE NIGHTINGALE SYNOPSIS:

Set in 1825 – during the Black Wars in Van Diemen’s Land – Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an indentured Irish convict servant, in bondage to the cruel Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). She is overdue her ticket of leave and wants to be with her husband and child, but Hawkins refuses to relinquish his control. His abuse of power culminates in horrific sexual and physical violence – depicted so unflinchingly by Kent that some viewers have walked out of cinemas – that strips Clare of everything she holds dear. Hiring a black guide Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), Clare stalks Hawkins and his small party to Launceston in order to punish them.

The Nightingale - Aisling Franciosi
Aisling Franciosi

HEARTBREAKINGLY POWERFUL:

Australia, like most places on earth, had a despicable upbringing from its inhabitants (or invaders) however you wish to describe them. The Colonial days in Australia were horrendous times of ethnic cleansing and if you think women’s rights are bad now – you don’t even want to comprehend what it was like back then.

Jennifer Kent takes a bold step by facing the two issues in 1825 without restraint. It’s a conversation that needs to be acknowledged and for the people to be educated about. We come from horrendous roots in this country and thank god we learned and now have a government that no longer imprisons people that are different from us on islands while squishing any hope for salvation, respect and equality. Oh wait!!

While set in 1825 could THE NIGHTINGALE be a bold metaphor about learning from our past? Most likely, but the story set in 1825 is one of the greatest cinema stories told from our country. It is told with a nuanced strength from Kent and needs to be viewed.

Kent tells a revenge story like no other. A revenge story is kind of like playing a shoot em up game on your console. There are levels of baddies to get through before you have your showdown with the main protagonist. THE NIGHTINGALE somewhat loosely follows this path but it isn’t anywhere near as simple as that. The thing with THE NIGHTINGALE, which Kent highlights, is this is not a game, and while a fictional tale it is there to let you know….. there wasn’t an escape from the British Colonialism, it was brutal and as heartless as one could imagine.

The Nightingale - Damon Herriman
Damon Herriman

JENNIFER KENT CAN DO NO WRONG:

Kent is now 2 for 2 – two flawless, intelligent films worthy of international audiences and awards. She manages to intertwine an Irish woman set for revenge after being brutalised beyond comprehension pairing up with an Aboriginal man who’s brutalisation almost makes Clare’s brutalisation trivial. Claire is the realisation of humanity that she, and society were complicit in terrible wrongdoings. It is horrendous what happens to Claire – but I will tell you it is over fairly quickly in the film and is essential to Claire’s motives for the rest of the film. She is pushed and brutalised to the point of snapping and commencing a crusade to right what was so so wrong.

But Claire has to realise first that while she is a victim she is also complicit in the genocide taking place on the local aboriginals. Sure, she lives in a society that believes the black man is less than a dog, once she is out of the mob of colonial Tasmania and spends her time with Billy, who she calls “Boy,” she begins to realise the wrongs she has helped perpetuate. She is Irish and brutalised by the English, Billy is indigenous and brutalised by everyone. When she first calls him by his name I shed a tear because it was at this time she started to heal as a person in a fucked world.

Likewise Hawkins, a total fucking animal who is given command and allowed to do whatever he wanted to anyone of lesser station. Sure he is to blame with what happened to Claire (and others) but he is in a society that allowed people like him to be in power.

Technically the movie is flawless. The artistic cinematography in the wilderness is simply stunning and contrasts with the brutality taking place. Polish Cinematographer Radek Ladczuk lenses this like he’s painting a canvas while listening to the poetry of Banjo Patterson. He also lensed THE BABADOOK and one of my favourite Polish films SUICIDE ROOM.

The Nightingale - Baykali Ganambarr and Aisling Franciosi
Baykali Ganambarr and Aisling Franciosi

THE LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHTINGALE:

A little bit of trivia I picked up while reading about THE NIGHTINGALE. The language spoken by the Tasmanian Aboriginals in this film is Palawa Kani. It is near extinct and marks the first time ever spoken in a mainstream picture. It was basically resurrected for the film to make it as authentic as possible.

And there is the reason some people will not like this film. And why people have walked out of screenings. Because the escapism in watching THE NIGHTINGALE is by taking a trip into authenticity. It is void of a happy ending and it is void of a little Hollywood glamour, it is raw, and it is real, and totally heartbreaking in a Colonial gothic way.

POWERHOUSE PERFORMANCES:

Kent brings out award winning performances from all four of her leads. Aisling Franciosi owns the screen for THE NIGHTINGALE. Seeing the world through her eyes is reassuring and yet terrifying at the same time. No one person deserves that amount of grief and brutalisation and it is in her overcoming adversity and accepting her complicity in a fucked up society that we get some hope by the end of the film. I thought she was an unknown but nearly choked on my tea reading her bio – she played Lyanna Stark – Jon Snow’s bloody mother in GAME OF THRONES!!

Baykali Ganambarr deserves all the awards coming his way. This is his only acting performance and his raw delivery and meek, scared submissiveness is born of terror and performed remarkably. His story is as heartbreaking as Clare’s and when they fully embrace a partnership there is nearly no stopping them. I almost wanted this to be a Romeo and Juliet love story between the two of them but the building tension of their dawning love adds a beautiful unspoken quality to the film.

I love Sam Claflin as an actor. First discovered him in THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE and thought he was fantastic. His roles over the years have mostly cast him as the nice guy, I loved him in ADRIFT. But in this he takes a dark turn and it was hard watching someone I like so much be so fucking evil. But when looking back in the film I can do nothing but praise him for his delivery of what must have been an incredibly hard part to film.

Likewise to Damon Herriman as Ruse. He was involved but also you can see he didn’t like the wrong he was doing, but he did it anyways. His rape of an Aboriginal woman was not easily stomached. His performance is also fantastic – you might see him this year as Charles Manson in both MINDHUNTER and ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

And a final mention to Charlie Shotwell who plays little Eddie. A young orphan who is under the charge of Claflin’s Hawkins. He knows it is wrong but is being taught by an evil leader of society. Loved his innocence being ruined. And you may not recognise him – he was the youngest kid in CAPTAIN FANTASTIC back in 2016.

The Nightingale - Baykali Ganambarr
Baykali Ganambarr

IN CONCLUSION:

THE NIGHTINGALE is one of the best films made in 2019. It is raw, honest and non-gratuitously brutal in its delivery. Australia, like most of the world, has a shameful and horrendously violent past. Jennifer Kent acknowledges this in a beautiful Colonial Gothic Tale of Inequality, Love and Revenge.

AUSTRALIAN CINEMAS SCREENING THE NIGHTINGALE FROM AUGUST 29TH

NSW: Palace Cinemas (Chauvel, Norton St, Byron Bay), Dendy Cinemas (Newtown, Opera Quays), The Ritz Cinema RandwickUnited Collaroy

VIC: Palace Cinemas (Balwyn, Brighton Bay, Como, Kino Cinemas), Village Cinemas (Rivoli, Jam Factory), Cinema NovaSun Theatre YarravilleClassic Cinemas ElsternwickLido CinemasPeninsula Cinemas Sorrento

QLD: Palace Cinemas (James St), Dendy Cinemas (Portside, Coorparoo), Regal Twin GracevilleHome of the Arts Gold Coast

WA: Luna Cinemas (Leederville, Luna on SX), Palace Cinemas Paradiso

ACT: Palace ElectricDendy Canberra

TAS: State Cinema HobartStar Theatre Launceston

YOUR CRITIC:

Jason King owns, writes and edits Salty Popcorn and Spooning Australia. A movie, food, restaurant, wine, chocolate, bacon, burger and brussels sprouts addict he is a member of the Australian Film Critics Association and has been in the Australian movie industry for 26yrs. 

He believes all it takes to make a good movie is a bloody good story, with a little luck the rest should fall in line. He is getting a little sick of saying “story story story” in his reviews with so much shite releasing in the last decade. Furthermore he loves watching people trip over and is Leonardo DiCaprio’s biggest fan. 

** Images used are courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the distributor or publisher. Credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.