Colonialism has been the cause of a level of suffering that is indescribable. Through its spread, the depths of human cruelty shone darker than ever. However, in that darkness, there was still light, the purity of human kindness. It came in the form of the few brave enough to stand in solidarity with those they were told to hate. Those that in the hell on earth they found themselves in, felt that they could connect to something so foreign to them. The Nightingale is an intense and impactful depiction of how the light that shines in the dark is everything we should aim to be today.
Set in Tasmania, Australia during the attempted genocide of the Aboriginal people in 1825, Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi) and Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), two damaged souls brought together by the cruelty of British soldiers. Clare is an Irish convict not being allowed out of her servitude, who goes through immense pain at the start of the film and hires Billy, an aboriginal tracker, to help her hunt the men responsible. Those men being Hawkins (Sam Claflin), Jago (Harry Greenwood) and Ruse (Damon Herriman), a trio of British military travelling north through almost entirely undeveloped Tasmanian woodlands.
The Nightingale is very much two distinct experiences at the same time and the first is rage. This is a bleak film; it tears you down unforgivingly to get its point across. There is very little sunlight in the world Kent places us in. Instead, we are subject to constant grey skies or the terror that awaits us in nightfall. The Nightingale is not a horror film in the traditional sense, but throughout there is plenty of graphic violence. So much so that it is as if Kent herself is yelling at the camera urging us to recognise that this really happened. When night does fall, apparitions haunt Clare’s dreams, forcing her to confront the demons the world thrust upon her. In these moments, there is no light, it is an angry and cold condemnation; a reminder to never forget, or drift back to, the terrible actions of the past.
The second experience is that of hope. Clare and Billy grow closer as they travel together. Their shared persecution unites them in a way that would have been impossible otherwise. Seeing something so unlikely blossom in the harshest of realities is what makes The Nightingale a piece of tragic beauty. There is something so raw and powerful about seeing Clare do something as simple as standing up and lying down closer to Billy. In this period, that is an impossible image, and yet Kent has managed to make it viscerally real and captivating. The way the film contrasts itself with these two experiences makes The Nightingale essential viewing for Australian moviegoers especially. If not for a timely reminder of the tragic past of our nation, then for an authoritative lesson in empathy.
Filling this world with its characters was never going to be an easy task. The vast majority of them are vile men, lurking in the most unlikely of places, ready to deliver more torment to the leading pair. The most important of these comes from an unexpected source, Hunger Games alum Sam Claflin. As Hawkins, Claflin is deranged, he snaps at the click of a finger and is ruled only by anger.
It is an exceptional performance, one firmly based in Kent’s vicious reality. Franciosi is also spectacular. She is a force of nature from beginning to end. Every time Kent returns to the close-up motif of Clare’s face the image is just that little bit more cracked. The emotional strain of playing such a character would have been monumental, but she has undertaken it with apparent dedication and respect for the vision and is well-deserving of praise.
I was fortunate enough to get to hear Jennifer Kent, Baykali Ganambarr and producer Kristina Ceyton talk about the film after seeing it. It was there that I found out that this was Ganambarr’s first acting role. I was instantly taken aback. To think that a film of this nature would place so much into the hands of someone so inexperienced, and then to think that the man could pull it off so well that I assumed he had plenty of prior work behind him. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that this is one of the finest acting debuts of all time, certainly for an Australian. It takes so much courage to dedicate yourself to representing the struggle of your people to hundreds of thousands of people.
Ganambarr doesn’t just do that; he exemplifies their connection to the land and the creatures that inhabit it, all the while keeping alight the flame of a culture that colonialism tried so hard to eliminate. I say without a shadow of a doubt that he will be an AACTA (The Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards) nominee, and at this stage, he’s a clear winner.
The Nightingale sits and gnaws at you, it begs you to listen to its plea, it horrifies you, and it reminds you that if we all approach life with a hint of empathy, we can all be better people and live in a better world. Jennifer Kent has made a movie that needs to be seen and respected, even if we don’t want to look.
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