Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Movie Review: The Nightingale

The Nightingale **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Jennifer Kent.
Written by: Jennifer Kent.
Starring: Aisling Franciosi (Clare), Sam Claflin (Hawkins), Baykali Ganambarr (Billy), Damon Herriman (Ruse), Harry Greenwood (Jago), Ewen Leslie (Goodwin), Charlie Shotwell (Eddie), Michael Sheasby (Aidan), Matthew Sunderland (Davey), Magnolia Maymuru (Lowanna), Christopher Stollery (Major Bexley), Nathaniel Dean (Stoakes), Claire Jones (Harriet), Luke Carroll (Archie), Dallas Mugarra (Lowanna's Husband).
Jennifer Kent’s debut film, The Babadook, was one of the best debut films of the decade – and one of the best horror films of the decade as well – the story of parental terror where the main character is a mother who has to come to terms with the fact that she may hate her son – and keep that monster at bay. Her follow-up film, The Nightingale, isn’t a horror film at all really – although it certainly is as horrifying and unrelenting as any horror film could be. It is a film set in 1825 Australia and it is a film about colonialization and exploitation made extremely personal, as it becomes a slow moving game of cat and a mouse. It is a difficult film to watch – the first act in particular is unrelenting – but it’s a brilliant one in many ways, as Kent fully establishes herself as an artist with a lot to say, and no fear of saying it all.
Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is a young, Irish woman sent to Australia to serve out an absurdly long prison stretch for some petty teenage crimes. She has served her time however – married another Irish convict, and given birth to a beautiful baby girl. All she wants is her freedom – and Hawkins (Sam Clafin) can give it to her simply by writing a letter. He keeps promising, but never does it. Hawkins, a British Military Officer, doesn’t like where he’s been stationed – in the middle of nowhere – or the men under him, all losers he thinks – and he was only supposed to be there for a year, and now it been three. When another officer arrives, apparently to rubber stamp his transfer, Hawkins is frustrated once again. When Hawkins gets frustrated, those around him suffer – in particular Clare who he been raping for years, but she just has to suck it up and move on. What happens this time however is not something she can just suck up and move on from. When she finds that Hawkins and a few of his men have fled in the middle of the night – apparently going to get that job that may not be his – she gets her own Aboriginal guide, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) and heads out into the woods hell-bent on revenge.
The Nightingale is a long film at 136 minutes. After the harrowing opening 30 minutes, the film settles down, slow down, a little as it establishes the slow growing relationship between Clare and Billy. Both are treated as nothing by the ruling British class – but at first, Clare looks at Billy with the same racism as the other white people do – she may be Irish, but she’s not a “black one”. In turn, Billy looks at Claire with the same eyes he looks at every white person – the people who have victimized him and his people, killing them, stealing their land, their way of life, etc. As the journey continues, of course, they find that as a woman with no power and an aboriginal with no power, they have a lot more in common with each other than they think. They are slowing making their way to Hawkins – whose group moves slowly, and commits other horrible crimes along the way.
I do think if there is a flaw in the film, it’s that Kent doesn’t quite know where to end it. After the long middle stretch of the film in the forest, the distance between Clare and Hawkins closes, as they are both in town. From there, Kent keeps bringing them together, and tearing them apart – one, two, three times – and certainly too often. The individual scenes work wonderfully – in particular a scene where Clare sings to Hawkins in front of the other officers, bookending a scene near the beginning where he exploited her singing, this time taking the power back. It’s just that there are a few too many of the scenes that do essentially the same thing – each separated by another retreat by Clare and Billy, who will of course come back again.
But that is a minor flaw in a major film by Kent – who lays it all out on the lines with The Nightingale, and doesn’t back down. She has a lot of big ideas – too many perhaps to cram into one film, and perhaps some will complain it’s another story of a white filmmaker telling an aboriginal story she doesn’t fully understand. But it’s the kind of brutal and unrelenting film that shocks you with violence, but has a hell of lot more to say than that. It’s not a film you’d probably want to watch more than once – but it’s one you won’t soon forget.

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