“Welcome to the world boy, full of misery from top to bottom.”
In The Nightingale, young Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is hellbent on revenge amongst the Tasmanian wilderness in 1825, searching for the Lieutenant (Sam Claflin) who commited brutal acts against her and her husband and child. With young Aboriginal Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) as her guide, the story addresses class, racism, and the colonialism that destroyed the Aboriginal communities of Australia in the 1800s. However, whatever point Kent intended to make about these issues and important moments of history are rendered completely unrecognizable by a relentless onslaught of abuse – both to the characters and to the viewer.
This is a film that attacks its audience, one that seeks to remind us that ‘the white man’ owns and abuses everything – as if we need reminding. It does it so violently, with so many explicit and prolonged scenes of sexual abuse that you may need two hands to count them.
Kent offers no sign of humanity, there is no hope to be found. When Billy serves as comic relief with his shockingly plucky attitude, it feels like an insult. The early colonial period is a glossed over and an important part of Australian history, yes, but if you upset your audience to the point where they struggle to stay in their seats, how are you going to educate them?
It could be argued that, visually, The Nightingale is a beautiful film; its period setting features vast spaces and wild forests of the tallest trees. Equally, the cast must be commended for their performances. Claflin is terrifying as the Lieutenant in his completely chilling portrayal of the entitled soldier. Ganambarr and Franciosi carry the film through the Tasmanian wilderness, and they share good chemistry. But sadly, the individual cogs in this machine, however brilliant, do not cooperate to bring together a film that is memorable for the right reasons.
The Nightingale does not offer a commentary, and does not offer an education or a new perspective. It is simply 136 long minutes of endless, repetitive, and unforgiving rape, assault, racism, murder, and violence that may well leave you sick to your stomach and angered to no end that this film exists.