It’s been six years since Jennifer Kent’s impressive second feature, The Babadouk initiated the urgent need for more absorbent seating in cinemas throughout the land. But where that film was a cleverly constructed frightmare, The Nightingale is terrifying for entirely different reasons. It’s an unflinching account of events in Tasmania in 1825, where the indigenous population is being systematically eradicated and where everyday life for the white settlers is unrelentingly savage.
I’ve been wanting to see this film for quite some time. On its cinematic release in 2018, it caused much controversy, but I was unable to find a single cinema in my locality that was showing it. Now, finally, here it is on Netflix, in all its excruciating detail. And ‘excruciating’ is definitely the operative word.
The ‘nightingale’ of the title is Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish woman, sent to the penal colonies for some unspecified crime before being ‘rescued’ by Captain Hawkins (Sam Claflin), a callous and ambitious military officer, who keeps her for his own amusement – and for her ability to sing plaintive Irish ballads.
Clare is now married to another convict, Aidan (Michael Sheasby), and even has a baby by him, but – when Clare asks if, after three years of toil, she and her husband might be allowed to go free – Hawkins (in an almost unwatchable scene) exercises his control over her in the most brutal way imaginable. And when Aidan,, emboldened by drink, goes to plead his wife’s case, horrific violence ensues.
Hawkins and his equally depraved Sergeant, Ruse (Damon Harriman), set off across the hostile landscape to the town where Hawkins is to take up a new commission. Clare follows, intent on revenge, enlisting an aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), to be her guide. At first the two of them simply tolerate each other but, as their arduous journey continues, they start to become friends…
It should be said right up front that The Nightingale is not for the faint hearted. It’s a coruscating, shocking and occasionally heartbreaking story, set during one of the most shameful periods of contemporary history. Rape, murder and general violence are all depicted in unflinching detail – though it’s important to add that at no point does any of it feel prurient. Hawkins is a particularly nasty piece of work – and perhaps it’s this character that prevents the film from being a truly great piece of work – he’s so unremittingly horrible, so vile, that he sometimes borders on caricature: a leering pantomime villain who exists purely for audiences to despise him. I would like some insight into what has made him the loathsome creature that he is. Also, there’s a point in the film where Clare bafflingly appears to lose her lust for vengeance and we’re never entirely sure why this is the case. The film wobbles for fifteen minutes or so, before coming back to full coherence.
And yet, this is a story that needs to be told, a reminder of how dehumanising the process of colonialism is. It’s a matter of historical record that the natives of Tasmania were eradicated by over-zealous settlers in just a few short years: apart, that is, from one old woman who was kept alive… and exhibited in a zoo.
So, steel yourself and watch The Nightingale – if you have the mettle for it. I won’t try to claim that it’s a comfortable experience, but Kent’s film nonetheless tells a story that must never be forgotten.