“You don’t want trouble but sometimes trouble wants you.”
Jennifer Kent’s debut film, The Babadook, was an excellent movie, but by no means a pleasant one. So, when I so much as heard the logline of her sophomore feature, I knew that it wasn’t going to be my brand of poison. Too heavy, too grim, too humorless. And certainly, The Nightingale is all of those things and more.
It has become somewhat de rigueur in recent years to conjure soul-searching deconstructions of the rape-revenge film, and it’s easy enough to see The Nightingale through that lens, especially for its grueling first third or so. And I mean no disrespect to other movies that have done that – sometimes quite well – when I say that Nightingale has much more on its mind.
This isn’t a film about empowerment, nor is it a “dig two graves” indictment of the drive for vengeance. To the extent that such a long and dense film is about any one thing, The Nightingale is about how the colonizer mindset consumes and destroys everything it touches, including the colonizers themselves, until those who survive it become ghouls gnawing on bones while believing themselves kings.
There is no revenge that is adequate to the rapes committed by imperialism. No amount of bloodshed, no single reckoning could ever narratively balance those scales. The horror of what has happened to Clare in the film’s first half-hour – and it is horror, told in grueling, unflinching detail – becomes dwarfed by the enormity of the system that allowed it to happen, that lets it keep happening, that encourages it.
As Clare and Billy, the man she employs to guide her, pursue her attackers across the Tasmanian bush, they pass through a world of almost unearthly natural beauty, juxtaposed by a vision of living hell, brought on by the conflicts that rage there. Not just between the colonizers and the land’s native inhabitants, but within the ranks of the colonizers themselves.
If I knew more about the intricacies of Tasmanian history, I’m sure I would appreciate nuances of the film that, knowing almost nothing of the subject, have otherwise escaped me. But one need not know the history of the place to get the brunt of what Jennifer Kent is trying to get across in this grueling, brutal tale of the horrors of colonialism.
That said, I mentioned up top that I knew going in that this wasn’t going to be my thing. Too humorless, too grim, etc. And it is all of those things. And, as predicted, that makes it hard to enjoy. Indeed, it isn’t a movie made to be enjoyed.
In that regard, it reminded me of another Australian western, 2005’s The Proposition. It’s been too long since I saw that film for me to say much about it with confidence, besides that it was tough to sit through, but I imagine that Nightingale puts its grim brutality to the service of a more resonant theme.
At a little over two hours long, though, The Nightingale is more than grueling. It becomes something of an endurance test. It would be easy, I think, for a movie so unremittingly unpleasant to invite one to look away, to turn it off and come back another time. Fortunately, The Nightingale is also other things besides grueling, and one of those is almost hypnotic.
Indeed, I often break viewings of movies up into several chunks, due simply to time constraints, and had every intention of doing the same with The Nightingale when I put in the new Blu-ray from Second Sight, to watch the movie for the first time. But I ended up staying the whole way through. It felt almost irresponsible to look away, even to pause the film and come back to it at a later date.
It helps that The Nightingale is not an ugly film, though much of what happens in it is truly ugly indeed. And the beauty of the landscape does more than just act as a counterpoint to the violence; it reminds us always that the brutality we’re seeing is not simply the “natural order,” but a truly unnatural order, the result of a cycle of violence perpetuated and encouraged by colonialism.
Aisling Franciosi gives a brave performance as Clare, the wounded catalyst of our tale. Crucially, however, Jennifer Kent seems to know better than to center the film on Clare’s suffering. That’s where we begin, certainly, but over time, as I said before, her pain is subsumed, within the narrative, by the pain that is everywhere in such a cruel system.
Though the film begins with Clare, and is named for her, it is not her story alone. It is Billy’s, as much as hers, and The Nightingale doesn’t elevate either her suffering or Billy’s one above the other, nor play them off one-another in any such way. It doesn’t give one an arc at the expense of the other. Instead, it gradually teases out the commonalities of their stories, and of everyone’s who are caught up in this tragedy – which goes far beyond the film to encompass all of the long history of colonization and exploitation.
Does it do so perfectly? No, hardly. But it does so powerfully, helped along by an absolutely incandescent turn from first-time actor Baykali Ganambarr as Billy, who acts as the film’s heart every bit as much as Clare does, if not more.
On the Second Sight Blu-ray, The Nightingale looks and sounds absolutely gorgeous – even when you might not want it to – and the presentation manages to be spellbinding, if by no means pleasant. The limited edition Blu also comes with a variety of special features and a 40 page booklet with essays by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Elena Lazic. Unfortunately for those on the U.S. side of the pond, the Blu is region B only, so us Yanks will need a region-free player in order to watch it.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.