There’s no denying The Nightingale is a difficult watch. (When the theater manager says they have psychologists waiting outside if you need to leave, it’s pretty serious.) But while The Nightingale is punishing in its depiction of sexual violence, there’s enough moments of great humanity and connection that ultimately leaves ones conflicted on whether this film is something that will be able to be watched again.
Set in Tasmania in the 1820s, The Nightingale follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict who’s indebted to a British solider named Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Hawkins holds Clare’s freedom hostage by denying her papers to freely travel with her family, her husband Aiden (Michael Sheasby) and her newborn. Hawkins repeatedly rapes Clare and controls her wages. One night, Aiden confronts Hawkins, the result of which sets Clare off on a revenge path through the Tasmanian wilderness.
There are multiple rape scenes, each shot to be lasting. Director Jennifer Kent takes care with these scenes, though, only letting the camera focus on the women’s face, denying us access to the male gaze. These scenes aren’t about the men who commit these acts of violence, but of the women who suffer through them. Even so, it’s too punishing at times, excessive in the rate at which they happen.
Where The Nightingale really takes off is the friendship between Clare and Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal tracker Clare enlists to help her track down Hawkins and his group of soldiers. The film doesn’t shy away from the way Aboriginals were treated during this time. Even Clare, who we’ve seen be subjected to immense trauma, uses degrading and racist language about Billy and other Aborigines in the beginning. But as the two make their way through the wilderness, they share each of their past pain with each other, creating a mutual understanding and respect for they’ve both gone through. For Billy, it’s the white man taking everything from him and his people. One of the most moving parts of the film is when Clare and Billy are invited into the home of two elderly white people. Billy starts dinner eating on the ground until the older man tells him to eat at the table. Billy sits down, but doesn’t eat, caught up in the moment. He starts to cry, in front of Clare, the old man, and the old man’s wife, who didn’t want Billy there. But this isn’t a moment of Billy finally being treated kindly by a white man but, instead, Kent uses this moment to point out the hypocrisy of the moment. Through his tears, Billy says: “This is my country.” He shouldn’t have to be invited to sit at a table.
All of the Aborigines in the film are locals, most of whom have never acted before, including Ganambarr, who plays Billy. Billy is an incredibly endearing character, providing most of the very few laughs in the film. But in the scenes like the one above, his performance is also very moving.
The same can be said for Franciosi as Clare. She’s great when she’s angry and on her revenge spree, but again, the intimate moments stand out — when her and Billy share their respective songs around a small fire; when she uses Hawkin’s favorite song against him, a quiet, roaring form of revenge there is.
The Nightingale is as much Billy’s story as it is Clare’s, and every other oppressed person out there. There’s something unsettling when you’re able to draw parallels to present day in a film like this. When a white woman can get revenge while an Aborigines woman doesn’t, or the utter confidence of a white man in power believing he’s gotten away with it. There’s something to say about telling the truth in a film, even if it seems excessive and difficult to watch. Other times, less is more. Maybe The Nightingale didn’t need every one of those scenes. But with them, Jennifer Kent creates a film not easily forgotten. Now, maybe we’ll remember our history is ugly, and we won’t repeat ourselves. And maybe we’ll remember the incredible humanity that comes from connection and understanding.