Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut, The Babadook, announced the arrival of a formidable talent, paving the way for some of the more disturbing horror offerings of recent years. She’s back with The Nightingale, which premiered at Venice last year and now finds its way to Sundance London. Driven by a series of horrific events it may be, but this is no horror movie.
It’s the early 1800s and Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is a young mother in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). But, being Irish and an ex-convict, she’s an outcast, scraping a living by singing for drunken soldiers and with her future in the hands of a deeply unpleasant British army officer, Hawkins (Sam Claflin). He’s responsible for the events of one single night when she loses everything she loves and, determined to take her revenge, Clare employs Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her track Hawkins down. It turns out to be a long, arduous quest for blood.
On the surface, and certainly to everybody who comes across them, Clare and Billy make an unlikely combination. In truth, she has more in common with him than anybody else. Both are outcasts, both victims of violence at the hands of the British and both have little in the way of a future. Their friendship is one of the more successful aspects of what is essentially a deeply pessimistic film, with Kent’s outrage at the treatment of the Aboriginals almost tangible.
But this is a lengthy and profoundly brutal trek through the Tasmanian interior. That brutality seems never-ending, with both Clare and an Aboriginal woman repeatedly raped in some deeply uncomfortable scenes. The bloodshed is equally explicit, making this an exhausting watch that eventually makes you wonder if all the effort is completely worth it. Ultimately, and rather like some of the protagonists, the story gets lost in the woods, with the chase itself losing its impetus and eventually falling flat. Worse still, the villains of the piece are so deeply evil that their brutality becomes the norm and is devalued all too soon.
The Nightingale still has the ability to disturb but its length is its greatest enemy, diluting the overall effect. Strong performances from Franciosi, Ganambarr and Claflin (again proving he’s capable of more than lightweight romantic roles) help keep your attention but, given the expectations surrounding the film, its running time and merciless brutality turn it into a powerful but grim slog.
The Nightingale is screened at Sundance London on Saturday, 1 June and Sunday, 2 June.
Freda Cooper | [rating=3]
Drama, History | Cert: tbc | UK release date to be confirmed | Dir. Jennifer Kent| Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Ewan Leslie, Baykali Ganambarr and Nathaniel Dean.