‘The Nightingale’ Review: A Song of Violence and Vengeance

Tasmania in the 1820s, as depicted in “The Nightingale,” is a ladder of cruelty. Nearly every human relationship is defined by domination and subjugation, a system of absolute violence organized under the banner of civilization and the British flag. In the rough settlement where the movie begins, British soldiers rule over convicts who have been “transported” from England and Ireland. The soldiers, abused and humiliated by their superior officers, are also engaged in a brutal war of conquest with the Indigenous Tasmanians, referred to as “the blacks.”

Jennifer Kent, who wrote and directed this rigorous, relentless film, surveys this landscape with clear-eyed fury. “The Nightingale” is a revenge story, one that draws on familiar Victorian Gothic and Hollywood western tropes. It’s the tale of a wronged woman, and of white men in hostile territory. Its themes are justice, innocence and the boundary between barbarism and decency. But to say that Kent offers a revisionist take on traditional genres would be like calling “The Babadook,” her terrifying debut feature, a revisionist children’s movie. Part of her brilliance as a filmmaker lies in her mastery of the cinematic canons she subjects to thorough critical scourging.

The heroine” is Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict with a diffident manner and a beautiful singing voice. She lives on a small farmstead with her husband, Aidan (Michael Sheasby), and their baby daughter. The family, and everyone else around them, is at the mercy of Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), the ambitious young commander of the local garrison, who is eager for a promotion to Launceston, a bigger, more established town near the island’s northern coast.

Hawkins sees himself as a man of taste and refinement. He appreciates Clare’s singing, and silences the vulgar catcalls of some of his men when she performs at their mess. He also rapes her, an assault repeated and compounded with acts of savagery that are horrifying but not, in his environment, entirely surprising.

Clare survives the attack and decides, against all reason and advice, to seek payback. Without much hope of finding justice through official channels — a magistrate vaguely promises to file a report of some kind — she takes matters into her own hands, setting out for Launceston with a rifle and a horse. (Hawkins, worried that his promotion is in jeopardy, is on his way there with several of his men.) She also hires an Aboriginal guide named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), since the trackless forests are too dense and dangerous for a white woman to navigate on her own.

Clare’s place in the Tasmanian social hierarchy places her above Billy just as surely as it ranks her below Hawkins and his soldiers, and she treats her new companion with high-handed, racist condescension. For much of their journey, she addresses Billy as “boy,” treating him as a servant or worse even as her survival and sanity depend on him.

She keeps him in the dark about the true purpose of their journey. Not that anyone would take them for a posse in pursuit of an officer and his retinue. The long middle of the film switches back and forth between the unlikely hunters and their unwitting quarry, using their mishaps and chance encounters to cast a hard, sharp light on the racial, sexual and class violence that are central, in Kent’s account, to the founding of modern Australia.

“The Nightingale” is a movie thick with horror and heavy with feeling. Tasmania is in a state of war between what Billy calls “white fella” and “black fella,” a conflict waged without mercy or morality. The whites are engaged in a genocidal campaign that justifies itself as a counter-insurgency. Hawkins is a monster, but hardly an anomaly, and his increasingly sadistic behavior reveals the true face of British authority.

Billy and Clare slowly evolve toward an understanding of their common status as outsiders. English is neither one’s mother tongue, which is both a sign and a source of potential solidarity. Their political education in the necessity of anti-colonial, anti-patriarchal resistance happens in fits and starts, and sometimes in ways that feel a little obvious. Occasionally they utter programmatic statements that seem meant to instruct the audience in the meaning of the ordeal we are witnessing. But there isn’t much danger of misunderstanding.

Though “The Nightingale” is an effective history lesson, it is even more powerful as an ethical inquiry into the consequences of violence and the nature of justice. The length of the movie can feel oppressive — the chase is grinding, its resolution repeatedly deferred — and Kent’s shooting style is deliberately claustrophobic. The screen is a tight almost-square, and Franciosi’s face often occupies it in confrontational close-up. We can’t look away from Clare, from what happens to her or what she sees.

The punishment is the point. This is a difficult movie because the questions it raises are not easy. There are sentimental and reassuring movies about vengeance, and comforting stories about the resistance to historical oppression. This isn’t one of those. You might say it’s too angry. Or too honest.

The Nightingale

Rated R. Endless cruelty. Running time: 2 hours 16 minutes.

The Nightingale

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A.O. Scott is the co-chief film critic. He joined The Times in 2000 and has written for the Book Review and The New York Times Magazine. He is also the author of “Better Living Through Criticism.” @aoscott

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