Miami Film Festival 2019: Walking through the rainforests of Tasmania, the sounds of creatures, man, and insects echo through the treetops. A young woman named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) aims a rifle at her black aborigine guide Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). The jungle is thick, hot, and full of death. Director Jennifer Kent proved she could make a dark and traumatic film with “The Babadook” in 2014. With “The Nightingale,” Kent removes ghosts and ghouls for the monsters that walk among us. As Clare and Billy walk through the jungle, the setting takes on a literal and metaphorical role in their journey. This journey will get much darker, but the land-based “Heart of Darkness” tale offers something unique about this moment in culture.
“The Nightingale” takes place in 1825 during a time when the British ruled Tasmania. Clare has been sent to the penal colony for years but found love with her husband Aiden (Michael Sheasby) and child. However, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) dominates her with extended servitude. He shows cruelty and anger towards her, raping her when she tries to ask for her justly earned freedom. After Aiden embarrasses Hawkins in front of his commanders, Hawkins brings two men (Damon Herriman and Harry Greenwood) to rape Clare and kill her family. Knowing justice will not come at the hands of the British, Clare sets out with Billy to hunt down the men as they travel through the jungle toward town.
The standouts of “The Nightingale” are undoubtedly Franciosi and Ganambarr. Each channels emotion into their roles, and Kent lets the camera linger on them to let the moments bloom. Franciosi gets the showier role, which gives her the chance to show extreme emotional swings, PTSD, and the chance to sing. Her pain and suffering is not just surface level, but has scared her so deeply, she can barely breathe. Franciosi imbues Clare with hope, but also a rage that will not allow her to be subjugiated again.
Ganambarr gets the opportunity to let layers of emotion build over the film. His turn from an angry and rudderless man into the person he becomes builds with each moment. He brings moments out of Franciosi, and the two build an incredible friendship. The way he looks at her is not one of lust, but of genuine love and care for her safety. Even when the world is against him, his search for family and agency grants him power.
Both actors speak in multiple languages, including Gaelic and Palawa Kani, during the film. Each uses their respective languages to regain power and sing their truth. Despite the dialectic barrier, they understand each other thanks to the non-verbal performances. These non-verbal interactions elevate the performances considerably and should bode well for future career success.
Meanwhile, Claflin showcases career-best work. When he is pushed, he is terrifying to everyone around him. He shows no remorse and pure anger at those around him. His entitlement drips from the screen, and his performance as an angry white man comes through in spades. He is dangerous and violent, but what could be the most chilling of all is the righteous way he performs these acts.
Kent’s story handles extremely heavy themes from the beginning of the film. Within the first thirty minutes, we’ve seen the murder of a baby, multiple rapes, and lynchings. Racial tensions immediately come into focus between the aborigines and the white invaders. At every turn, she layers trauma on top of trauma. For some, the violence will be too intense and too depressing. At times it almost feels as if Kent dislikes her own characters. Beyond the violence against natives and people of film, the heart of the story focuses on a woman avenging her family for evils at the hands of an entitled white man. It could be read as wish fulfillment, but more importantly, her journey is one of self-fulfillment. It feels inspired by events in the world, but it also understands the power structures and hegemonic forces working against her.
Kent continues to develop her visual style, and at times “The Nightingale” transcends the source material. The cinematography from Radek Ladczuz creates beautifully complex shots. The close-ups allow the audience to see each emotion flowing through the extremely expressive Franciosi and Ganambarr. At other points, Kent and Ladczuz utilize the camera as the POV for Franciosi. Perhaps the best moments in “The Nightingale” come from the use of interesting lighting. The shadows, or what comes from them, create tension and fear. It proves that dark stories, especially emotionally dark ones like “The Nightingale,” need to also employ complex visual language to keep the audience engaged.
The use of sound also ramps up the tension. During moments of violence, the sound crescendos like a cacophony of screams and emotion. When the sound drops out, the emotion hits you like a brick. The jungle allows the sound team to fill the theater with sounds of broken branches, screams in the dark, and animals lurking in the shadows. No place is safe.
While the cinematography and sound design are excellent, the editing team need to scale back a bit. At times the movie goes too far with its violence, not just against women, but people of color. Some scenes are necessary to build the characters. Yet the way the camera lingers, Kent seems to relish these moments.
What further complicates the issue are redundant scenes. Some are artsy and skillfully directed, but are too on the nose to feel surprising. At times “The Nightingale” shows us the information and then loops back to tell us the same information two scenes later. It feels as if we’re being handled with kid gloves to make sure we understand everything. Chopping fifteen to twenty minutes off the film could have streamlined “The Nightingale” in a positive way. Fewer moments of violence would not change the fact the film is full of vile creatures.
Jennifer Kent spins a tale of revenge, loss, and death. It is full of trauma, sexual violence, and physical violence against women and people of color. No one is spared. Yet despite all of these things, Kent tells a story that speaks to a moment in the world right now. It returns agency to two people who have stripped of it their entire lives. Kent leans into the darkness of the story but stumbles on the path on occasion. While it is not the masterpiece on the same level of “The Bobadook,” it wrestles with big questions and ambition. It was an excellent sophomore outing for Kent and affirms her place as one of the most exciting filmmakers on the rise.