‘The Nightingale’ Review: Harsh Outback Revenge Thriller

Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is living a fraught existence in nineteenth-century Australia. Her past as a thief keeps her in bondage to a sadistic English officer who ‘saved’ her from prison. He assaults her regularly. Her husband demands her freedom. In response the officer and his men rape her, and murder Claire’s husband and child. Joined by a native Australian guide (Baykali Ganambarr), she sets out to avenge the death of her family in the outback.

The narrative unfolds predictably as Claire and Billi grow closer, overcoming their prejudices along the way. Claire finds her heart hardening in her pursuit of vengeance, as you’d expect. The film lacks the true innovation of similar revenge tales of late such as The Homesman or Slow West. It’s in the telling that this story is able to find it’s own identity.

The horrific scenes in which Claire is haunted by spectres in the night recall Writer /Directors previous work The Babadook. She masterfully builds tension and unease and has a knack for the grim and unsettling. It’s a relentless work of screaming children and violated women. Come the end, it’s not too clear that the film has said anything new with its dark content.

There’s little insight into why these acts occur and how best to respond to the worlds many injustices. Sam Cafflin plays the officer as an effectively despicable but very cartoonish villain. He bonds with a boy throughout the film, clearly hoping to groom him as a father figure. When the son figure shows mercy, the officer reads it as weakness and becomes furious at the boy and himself. It’s a very interesting aspect of a fairly singular character.

There is, however, an interesting insight into the harsh realities that perpetuate racism. Amongst these vicious men, someone needs to be at the bottom. At one stage they find themselves without a black man and immediately another figure is chosen to be the victim of the group. It’s only when the kidnap another black person that the man is redeemed and redoubles his racist actions to reaffirm his position in the group. It’s a horrible game, with whoever is on the bottom, the recipient of everyone’s ire.

Aisling Franciosi is great as Clare, offering a many-layered performance of grief and fury. The highlight of the film is Baykali Ganambarr as Billy. His expressive but humble performance becomes the heart of the film as Claire journeys deeper into madness. In one scene he simply sorrows that this is his country and the pure but often accepted injustice of that simple fact is striking. The film finds a fresh nerve in this old but deep wound.

The Nightingale is a hauntingly beautiful and brutal journey into the Bush. The verdant forest and savage treatment of anyone vulnerable afford the drama the feel of a dark parable. Kent has crafted a uniquely unsettling experience but it’s a shame not to see more insight into the dark heart behind all the brutality.

Four Stars

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