Director: Jennifer Kent
Writer: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Isabella Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Charlie Jampijinpa Brown and Michael Sheasby
Running Time: 136 min
BBFC Certification: 18
Journeys are often fraught with danger as well as facing many twists and turns. When these travels are journeys of the soul and how our emotions shape our motivations, interesting narratives are woven.
The Nightingale is a 2018 film that centres around the life of Clare Carroll, an Irish convict who has worked her time in the service of a British officer, alongside many other convicts. Her life has meaning, as she hopes to be free – free to build a life for herself, her husband and their beautiful child. The first thirty minutes of the film set up the motivation and drive for the rest of the running time as she chases the British officer across the country. Clare seeks justice and revenge for the violence perpetrated against her and her family.
As part of this pursuit, she enlists the (reluctant) help of Billy, a tracker from the native Aboriginals. The movie evolves into a road movie, filled with the usual tropes that follow; exploring the similarities and differences between the main characters; how their own experiences influence their view on the harsh realities of the world.
The Nightingale is not a pleasant watch, albeit intentionally so. The film has scenes that are intense in their representation of violence without ever being overly graphic. The horror is captured in the actor’s faces rather than in detail. This forces the viewer to face the emotion and grim reality of the impact of each of these actions. It has led to accusations of the film using the violence and rape as a device of power. The assertion is incorrect as the writer / director / producer Jennifer Kent has gone to great lengths to segment the violence from the rape as motivations for each of the actions of the characters throughout the film.
The performances throughout are notable, especially Aisling Franciosi. The success of the entire production is placed on her shoulders and she does an incredible job of playing a character who displays great fire while burdened. There is light to the shade and the softer moments suit the changing landscape of the film. There are believable and forthright performances throughout the cast from Baykali Ganambarr (Billy), Michael Sheasby (Aidan) and a wonderfully cowardly Damon Herriman (as Ruse). The one area which did not work as well for me was the character of Hawkins, brilliantly played by Sam Claflin. It is clear they intended him to be a character of some light as well as shade, but the regular acts of evil perpetrated by the character fall short of ever giving him a sense of redemption. As a figure of pure evil, he succeeds in spades.
The cinematographer (Radek Ladczuk) of the film is to be noted. While most of the film is shot to showcase the beauty of the landscape, the colours are often washed out as befits the mood. Where there are moments of calm and clarity, the colour palette switches to a lush and vibrant hue. It accentuates the change of mood. The lighting of the night and dream scenes are crisp and clear, and you are never left in the dark (pun intended) at any point. It’s a beautiful looking film and the print on the disc looks great to my eyes.
The Nightingale plots around a historical representation of Tasmania in 1825. Tasmania is the main penal colony for the British Empire where tens of thousands of criminals (many of them only guilty of petty crimes) were ferried across to the other side of the world. The hope was that their absence would not only cleanse their birthplace but that it would inadvertently build and expand the British Empire. This resulted in a deeply unbalanced society. Criminals worked for their masters, while the masters worked to cleanse the land of the indigenous people. In Tasmania this led to a period known as the ‘Black War’, a period that has since been described as the only true genocide of the British Colonial expansion. It nearly resulted in the annihilation of the entire Aboriginal Tasmanian people. We are thrust into the middle of this conflict.
The historical setting blindsides you into believing that the themes are consigned to the time period. As the film imposes its motivations and attitudes on you, it becomes clear that the themes are universal. In fact, their currency has only risen in relevancy over the past couple of years.
As the film starts, the convicts are shown to be treated as inferiors to the hierarchy of the military. Once the convicts have served their time, they must request leave by way of letter of recommendation from their masters. It is not freely given and is often used to exert dominance and reliance. The world presents as a two-tier system, that is, until we are introduced to the native population. The clip below shows the deeper disdain that the indigenous people are subjected to, even by the convicts.
These issues of class, intolerance and ignorance of other cultures is as poignant today as it was then. How these ideas develop is a current that seeps through the fabric of the film. It gives the film one of its most powerful devices. To its eternal credit, these are the themes that linger once the shock and brutality of the film has abated. The regular stabs of violence that slash at your soul leave wounds. But wounds can heal and be replaced. The question for the viewer is whether powerful emotions such as hate, revenge and wrath will leave deeper scars from which a person may never (truly) recover.
Music and language are central to the diversity of how the main characters are represented. Clare is the Nightingale herself. In addition to being a helping hand, she is a minstrel who sings beautifully to entertain the troops and guests. Billy sings and dances in keeping with his upbringing as he connects his body to the world around him. The multilingual background of each character is explored throughout. The native tongue of Billy interweaves with the Gaelic brogue of Clare and is often used to heighten the fear and panic in moments of extreme stress. It was especially pleasing to hear the Irish language used at such length in a film such as this. It adds to the film’s authenticity.
There are many scenes in the film that are difficult to watch. Viewers walking out of the cinema in disgust are understandable. It is not an easy watch and fully deserving of the certificate. It is not a film in the genre of horror, but it is horrifying in theme and drama. Unfortunately, such were the realities of the time. It is not a film without redemption and the resolution of the film is thankfully not predictable. It feels odd to say, but my overriding feeling is not burdened by the scarring of the violence but rather the alternate themes that are showcased.
The Nightingale is released by Second Sight Films on the 8th February and can be preordered directly from their site here.
Blu ray Special Features
It will be of no surprise to any regular consumer of Second Sight Films releases that the film is enhanced by the breadth and depth of the extra features.
Bloody White People: A Video Essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (18 minutes)
Aside from the existing material that has been produced as part of the production, there was a desire to learn more about the historical relevance and themes. Second Sight commissioned this video essay to fill this gap and it does a wonderful job of doing exactly what I wanted. Does Tasmania have particular significance in British colonialism? Do the themes of rape and violence override some of the other themes of the film? It’s a fantastic piece that filled in many of the questions. Viewer beware though, it spoils the entire film so do not watch before the main feature!
The Nightingale in Context (28 minutes)
The title is misleading. This is a feature that combines multiple cast and crew interviews into a coherent narrative about how the individuals felt at various stages of the production. It is superseded by many of the individual cast and crew interviews (more below), but it acts as a summary. Included is Jennifer Kent herself talking about her fears in making a feature about aboriginal history.
The Making of the Nightingale (18 minutes)
This extra looks in more depth at how the film was put together from the view of those behind the scenes. It is also where we get to hear most about the film from the viewpoint of the writer and director, Jennifer Kent. The cast and crew also relate how arduous and detailed the elements of the making of the film were to carry out.
Cast and Crew Interviews
- Aisling Franciosi (Clare)
- Michael Sheasby (Aidan)
- Damon Herriman (Ruse)
- Harry Greenwood (Jago)
- Kristina Ceyton (Producer)
- Alexander Holmes (Production Design)
- Simon Njoo (Editor)
- Jed Kurzel (Composer)
Hearing how the production impacted and influenced the cast and crew is always welcome. You cannot help be impressed at hearing the actors talk about the film and its impact on their careers. These are new interviews for the release and total around two hours. It seems a little reductive to just group these insights as cast and crew interviews. I specifically enjoyed that they were carried out more recently as each of the contributors could reflect on how the film impacted their lives both retrospectively and in relation to other work they have done.
Michael Sheasby’s insight into working on The Nightingale in comparison to Hacksaw Ridge was particularly insightful. Aisling Franciosi’s use of traditional song in securing the role of Clare showcases
In summary, another terrific release from Second Sight. They have showcased another strong release and added to it in spades. This works to help the viewer make sense of many of the darker themes and ideas of the film. Terrific.