Hawkins, the cruel British military officer who looms over Jennifer Kent’s new film, The Nightingale, doesn’t give reasons for the several atrocities he commits over the course of the film. Only near the end, after murdering someone who wouldn’t stop pleading for his life, does he finally offer the flimsiest of explanations. “I just can’t stand all the fucking noise,” he whines. And yet Hawkins (played by Sam Claflin) is not presented as a psychopath. Rather, he is an angry, bored, and entitled instrument of colonialism: a man who views all other life in the Tasmanian territory he occupies as disposable.
At 136 minutes long, The Nightingale is a harrowing, uncompromising look at the realities of British rule in Australia—an intriguing follow-up to Kent’s deservedly hyped directorial debut, The Babadook. While that film, a tale of grief and motherhood dressed up as a monster movie, was also traumatic and powerful, its horror was slightly softened by its genre trappings. Not so for The Nightingale, which is set in 1825 amid the escalation of British presence on the island of Tasmania. The movie is a period piece, but it’s the furthest thing from a sumptuous costume drama, instead summoning the brutal truths of the time for a story that provides no easy resolution.
The Nightingale follows an Irish woman, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), who sets out to exact justice after being assaulted by Hawkins and his men and witnessing them murder her husband and child. It’s not a simple narrative of an avenging angel, however; Kent sets this story apart from the tropes that define the “rape revenge” genre, one of the grisliest subcategories of 1970s exploitation film. The scenes of assault in The Nightingale are incredibly hard to watch, not because of gratuitous voyeurism, but because they are unvarnished. Kent takes pains to depict the experience from Clare’s perspective, without any hint of Hollywood glamorization. The same goes for all the other violence in the film, of which there is plenty. There are no arcing splatters of blood, no clean pieces of action choreography; every death feels like a senseless loss.
The story is anchored in the history of the penal colonies established by Britain in Australia from 1788 to 1868. Clare is an Irish convict, whose husband is being detained in Tasmania with her, and that status is why Hawkins views her as his property to dominate and control. Kent also makes sure to depict the experiences of Aboriginal people, who were debased and eradicated on a massive scale by a colonial power that didn’t treat them as human beings. As Clare embarks on her journey to find Hawkins, she connects with a local Aboriginal guide, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), and the two eventually bond over their shared experiences of military oppression.
That relationship and the actors’ two performances are about the only shreds of humanity that Kent allows the viewer to cling to during the characters’ trek through the forest. Even so, the two are so suspicious of each other that much of their journey sees them fighting and splitting up, each of them at times unsure if there’s even any point in seeking vengeance. The camera work heightens the tension: The Nightingale is shot in a boxy aspect ratio that feels claustrophobic despite the rural setting. Kent doesn’t exult in the wide majesty of the forest, but rather conveys the ominous trees surrounding Clare and Billy on all sides. Frequently, she cuts to extreme close-ups of her characters’ faces, registering every twitch of pain they’re suffering.
Although The Nightingale is a tough watch, all the brutality is in service of a worthy effort: viscerally reckoning with the history of the director’s home country. Clare’s quest for retaliation leads her down a dark path, but in Kent’s eyes, it’s the only path available to her after surviving horrors that essentially robbed her of the spark of life. The Nightingale isn’t an easy cinematic experience, but if you can handle it, it’s an unforgettable one.