Directorial debuts tend to be the focus of up-and-coming film makers, but often, it is their sophomore efforts that manage to impress even more: Quentin Tarantino with Pulp Fiction, Robert Eggers with The Lighthouse, Ari Aster with Midsommar, Alex Garland with Annihilation, Jordan Peele with Us, Denis Villeneuve with Incendies, and David Fincher with Seven. Jennifer Kent joins these ranks with the resonating and powerful The Nightingale.
Exploding onto the Sundance scene in 2014 with the impressive and haunting The Babadook, Australian director Jennifer Kent returned last year with a period piece set in Tasmania of Aboriginal Australia during British colonisation. Kent had said in an interview with Vox that she, in fact, does not like period pieces (“I don’t particularly like period films, and I don’t tend to watch them”) as “they tend to romanticize the past”. That observation is indicative of her film making in this period piece, which audiences will note in just 10 minutes.
Remnants of her debut are felt throughout: a grieving and traumatised female protagonist, nightmarish imagery of aristocratic clothing. What separates The Nightingale from The Babadook is that the horror is real.
Aisling Franciosi (Lyanna Stark in Game of Thrones) stars as Clare, a young, convicted indentured Irish servant in colonial Australia. She enlists the help of an Aboriginal Tracker “Billy” (Baykali Ganambarr) to hunt down a viscious British Lieutenant (Sam Claflin, of Hunger Games and Peaky Blinders fame as Finnick Odair and Oswald Mosley respectively) after a night of unconscionable violence. Embarking on a path of revenge, the two weave a path of their past as they journey together on a parallel of a shared historical trauma.
Multiple elements distinguish this piece from contemporary cinema: the opening lines are entirely as Gaeilge, as is the first of Clare’s singing. It is shot in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio (as opposed to the standard 16:9 full screen), making the frame even tighter than a 4:3 aspect ratio (as seen in the recent Zack Synder cut of Justice League).
Already, the viewer anticipates hostility. A scene of brief tight shots of Clare walking in the forest singing her baby a lullaby ends with a close up of a gripped knife as she makes her way, signalling the danger of the land. But a danger from what exactly?
As an Irish indentured servant, Clare is frequently subjugated to dehumanising treatment by the entirely male British colonial officers at all ranks. The inciting incident makes it near impossible not to sympathise with her deadly rage and pain.
However, the film remains brutally and painfully accurate to history. Just as Clare sought the help of Billy as a tracker, Kent had an Aboriginal adviser on board throughout the production of the film, as well as compiling her own research.
When Clare first meets Billy, she has nothing but disdain for him. She is as racist as anyone of the time, as is he towards her (although Billy has the more justifiable feelings).
Kent makes this conflicting and difficult dichotomy the centre of this revenge story. It is through that that the film navigates its complex themes and questions. How could Clare show the same contempt for Billy that the British show towards her, or the Aboriginals?
English and Irish are not the only languages of the film. In a historical moment for cinema, Jennifer Kent has for the first time depicted the language of the Aboriginals on screen. ‘Palawa kani’ is a recreation of the language from the remnants of documents from the 11 former nations of Tasmania, where many descendants of the Aboriginals currently live.
Kent had been adamant about this. As the Irish and Gaeilgeoirs of the world fight to preserve the native language, so too do the descendants of Australia’s Aboriginals.
“Putting it in this film helps it continue to grow and gain recognition. So it’s something we were adamant we wanted to use.”
Although it may seem intuitive, Kent’s decision to subtitle both Gaeilge and Palawa kani is remarkable. Often, when Native language is depicted in film (notably Native American, with the exception of Inarritú’s The Revenant), it is rarely subtitled which subconsciously barricades a degree of empathy.
In The Nightingale, when we witness an Aboriginal woman being brutalised by British Officers, we not only hear and see her distress: we know exactly what it is she is saying and pleading, and how those words fall on deaf and inhumane ears.
Franciosi and Ganambarr give captivating and nuanced performances managing the emotions and reactions of a brutal colonial past. Their chemistry remains authentic throughout as it naturally progresses from disdain, to apathy, to solidarity. Ganambarr is particularly charming with his humorous tone and demeanour, but elicits the appropriate reaction from the audience in times of loss, sorrow, and vengeful determination - all within the confines of his character.
But the most memorable show is of Claflin, who is so repugnant and repulsive in his role it is at times hard to watch the film. There are few characters as believably loathsome as this lieutenant that he is sure to burn himself your mind.
None of the performances mentioned, along with the rest, feel like acting. Every instinct is human and authentic. They are complemented by the film’s natural setting and natural lighting, making it more akin to a documentary of the time period.
Nothing can be faulted from the film’s visuals. Pain-staking detail is given to the costumes, facial grooming, and tools. The cinematography breathes life into the environment both in style and content. The anxiety of an endless forest is punctuated by the unusual aspect ratio, furthering our empathy of the central characters.
Both notably occupy larger portions of the frame than their adversaries, as do a few of said adversaries in key, critical moments.
Jennifer Kent tells this tale of trauma and violence through its plot and imagery. Thematic elements are framed by character choices that affect the plot and conveyed by the depiction of the results from those choices: notably, brutal and unflinching violence.
Where Kent impresses the most is the reconciliation of a shared but unique past. Audiences will be surprised and taken aback by some of the concluding aspects of the film and character decisions. No value or moral judgement is made on any of those choices.
Rather, it is the idea that how one chooses to respond to similar but ultimately different experiences is not for someone else, shaped by a different experience, to decide or judge.
And with that, The Nightingale opens up and calls on us to understand and reflect on how people differ in their actions and response to events. By first cultivating empathy and understanding through language, we are drawn to reflect more on what we do not understand, and may possibly never fully comprehend.
This is essential viewing.