After her impressive and chilling debut The Babadook, Australian director Jennifer Kent returns with her second film – a period piece that zeroes in on a very different kind of horror. The Nightingale may sound like a poetical title, but the song this film sings is far from sweet. Set in 19th Century Tasmania – then called Van Diemen’s Land – it’s a brutal revenge tale that skewers British Colonialism and the use of Australia as an inhospitable dumping ground for convicts.
Scripted by Kent, the story is set during the Van Diemen’s Land Black War, which began in the mid 1820s, at a time when the British were fighting the indigenous Aboriginal people. Sam Claflin plays Hawkins, a violent and unhinged British lieutenant who takes his anger out on Clare (Aisling Francisoi), an Irish convict who – together with her husband and child – is long overdue her freedom. But a series of incidents and assaults – among the most shocking you’ll see on screen this year – lead Clare to seek vengeance on Hawkins.
Joining her on a treacherous journey through the wilderness as she seeks out Hawkins and his underling, Sergeant Ruse (Damon Herriman), is Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal tracker who shares her hatred of the British. As they make their way through the landscape, Clare and Billy’s fate intertwines with that of Hawkins and Ruse in the most violent of ways.
While it’s set a century before the 2017 film Sweet Country by Warwick Thornton, there is a certain correlation between the two movies, which both deal with primitive notions of justice. Here, Kent doesn’t hold back with the bloodshed (so much so, there were walkouts in cinemas in Australia) but rarely will you feel such a cathartic release as you do in the final scenes.
Performance-wise, The Nightingale is first-rate – particularly British actor Claflin, who is wonderfully repellent – even more so than he was as Oswald Mosley in the recent season of Peaky Blinders. Irish-Italian actress Francisoi is also very impressive, as is Ganambarr, who won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor at the Venice Film Festival when the movie premiered last year. If you’re ready for it, The Nightingale will take you to some very dark places.
The Nightingale opens on 29 November. For more details, visit here.
1. All stills from The Nightingale.