I’m not sure what, exactly, I expected of Jennifer Kent‘s follow-up to The Babadook – but The Nightingale wasn’t it. A weighty revenge thriller set in, of all things, 1820s Tasmania, it’s a film as complicated and surprising as The Babadook, but in a vastly different setting. Together, these two movies illustrate one immovable truth: that Jennifer Kent can do anything.
Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict currently serving a sort of indentured servitude under the command of a British army, stationed in Tasmania with orders to colonize – or in other words, eradicate – the community of Aboriginal Tasmanians. Her beauty, self-possession and angelic singing voice capture the unwanted attention of Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who develops a dangerous obsession with Clare that leads her to devastating tragedy. As Hawkins and a small company move on, leaving Clare with nothing, she hires an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to lead her through the Tasmanian wilderness, seeking revenge for what she’s lost.
There’s a fair amount of intersectionality at play in The Nightingale, with both Billy and Clare having suffered tremendous grief at the hands of white men. But for much of their time together, Clare can’t see beyond her own prejudices, calling Billy “Boy” and barking out orders, no less harsh or imperious than the way Hawkins treats the Aboriginal in his own company. The Nightingale has a lot to say about the way power oppresses the marginalized, and the way those less marginalized still wield unjust power over those at an even greater societal disadvantage.
Franciosi and Ganambarr are both remarkable here, two of the best performances I expect to see at the festival, and the relationship between Clare and Billy is fascinating, by far the most moving and significant part of The Nightingale. That complicated, unusual, meaty relationship makes The Nightingale into something much greater than a typical revenge thriller.
Though it’s certainly that, as well, with absolutely shocking violence; sexual violence and racial violence and the violence Clare and Billy must perform to survive their dreadful journey. Some of it is so mind-breakingly brutal that viewers will want to look away, but Kent never directs a moment of the film that feels cheap or exploitative. It’s all deeply thoughtful and about something. And the film’s plenty scary as well as gory, with Clare’s escalating nightmares showcasing the uncanny horror that Kent did so well with The Babadook.
There’s a bit of repetitiveness to The Nightingale, however, by the end of its quite long running time. As Clare and Billy track Hawkins through the bush, we start to feel like we’re going in circles, not only geographically but narratively. Some plots and emotional revelations play out multiple times while coming to the same conclusion. The impact of the film is slightly diluted by these repetitions by the end, but only slightly.
The Nightingale is so gorgeously, urgently shot, so pressing and important, that a film set in 1820s Tasmania feels as current and present as possible. It’s a breathtaking success by a director who could have made anything after the success of her first horror feature, and who decided to make a bloody but contemplative period piece with no easy answers.
This Sundance ’19 review was originally published on January 26, 2019.