Review: The Nightingale (Sundance)

PLOT: In 1820’s Tasmania, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict working as an indentured servant to an army officer (Sam Claflin), eagerly awaits the day her sentence will be over, and she’ll be able to start over with her husband and baby daughter. One evening, her drunken benefactor and two of his aides pay Clare and her family a visit, killing her husband and baby, while leaving her for dead following a brutal rape. When she comes to, she takes off into the Tasmanian wilderness with an Aboriginal tracker (Baykali Ganambarr) bent on avenging her family.

REVIEW: THE NIGHTINGALE is not for the faint of heart. How often do you hear that cliche thrown around, only for the movie to not be so heavy once you finally see it for yourself? Well, THE NIGHTINGALE is one of the rare films that lives up to that moniker, with it Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to THE BABADOOK, eschewing horror for something that’s more along the lines of a John Ford western, albeit set on the other end of the globe. While not straight-up genre, THE NIGHTINGALE sports some of the most disturbing imagery and savage violence you’re likely to see show up in anything that’s not NC-17 (although I doubt this will be able to secure an R once IFC finally puts it out), with this being the kind of film that would have even made Sam Peckinpah at his most insane blush.

Given the extreme violence, which contains four brutal rape scenes, several scenes of child murder and more, THE NIGHTINGALE is a hard movie to watch unless you’ve got a strong constitution. If you can handle it though, you’ll be rewarded with something of a masterpiece, with this being among the most unforgettable films I’ve ever seen at the fest.

What maybe makes the violence all the more disturbing is that Kent opts for an austere approach, using the confined 1:33:1 aspect ratio, shooting in muted, natural colors, and eschewing almost all semblance of a musical score. The result is that in some ways you feel like you’re right there with both Clare on her quest for revenge, but more disturbingly, Sam Claflin’s evil officer as he journeys through the wilderness raping and murdering with his men, making him one of the most disturbing big screen villains of all time. Claflin’s never disappeared into a part like this, thoroughly embracing how repugnant the character is in a way that calls timing vintage Oliver Reed.

THE NIGHTINGALE, of course, also offers star Aisling Franciosi a dynamic role, making her one of the most unusual heroines in recent memory. A product of her time, she’s shown to be hateful and racist towards the Aboriginals, with the heart of the film being her burgeoning friendship with Baykali Ganambarr’s tracker, Billy. Both of them are the survivors of major atrocities, with Billy having survived the near genocide of his people, and if the movie has any hopefull moments at all, it’s showing how these two are able to overcome the ingrained hatred that’s been such a big part of their life to work towards a common goal.

However, THE NIGHTINGALE is without a shadow of a doubt not for everyone. Many people will be absolutely horrified by it, and its polarizing audiences here at the fest. To me though, it’s a staggering work, putting Jennifer Kent on the map as one of the great directors out there. If you can handle it I highly suggest checking this out – on the big screen if possible.