Jennifer Kent

The Nightingale

04/08/20

Netflix

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.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Babadook

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27/10/14

Fright movies come in different styles and formats but usually they have just one thing in common; they’re not really about anything much. People get shredded by murderers or pursued by ghosts, usually for no reason at all. This Australian creep-fest from writer director Jennifer Kent breaks the mould. It’s essentially an allegory about loss, grief and depression but in its own way, it’s even scarier than its American cousins.

Single Mum, Amelia (Essie Davis) is struggling to bring up her young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman) after the death of her husband Robbie some years ago. The fact that Robbie was driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to Samuel when he died hasn’t helped matters one little bit and added to that is the fact that Samuel is a bit of handful to say the least, addicted to performing magical tricks and frightened about the monsters that supposedly live under his bed. One night, Amelia reads to Samuel from a storybook he has found on the shelf in his bedroom, a nightmarish pop-up book entitled The Babadook, which they have never seen before. It isn’t long before mysterious things are going bump in the night…

Like all the best fright movies, the Babadook gets a lot of mileage out of very little. The creature of the title is barely more than glimpsed and there’s always the suspicion that it might just be a figment of Amelia’s imagination. The film is also boosted by two superb central performances. Essie Davis is totally convincing as a woman pushed to the very edge of madness and her gradual disintegration through the film is a wonder to behold. Meanwhile, young Noah Wiseman is terrific in the difficult role of a hyperactive (and initially not very likeable) kid.

It’s interesting to note that the film started as a short and that Kent crowd funded it on Kickstarter in order to get the budget to produce a full-length version. It’s a powerful and at times, genuinely nerve shredding debut and it will be interesting to see what this director does next. Meantime, those of a nervous disposition may want to stay away from this one. Because you can’t get rid of the Babadook.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney