With controversy preceding its release, The Nightingale has seen polarising responses from festival audiences, from walkouts to awards. The controversy stems from the film’s depiction of rape, with two gruesome examples early in the film. These however, provide the necessary bedrock for a deep look into our colonisation’s patriarchy, genocide and classism, with white (male) entitlement at its extreme.
Set in Tasmania in 1825, Clare (Ainslie Franciosi) is an Irish convict, having served her sentence and permitted to marry and bare a child, yet still awaiting her final recommendation letter from British officer Hawkins (Sam Clafin). Stuck at the edge of freedom yet still a convict, she’s become a slave of sorts for Hawkins, who displays extreme levels of emotional (and aforementioned physical) abuse to maintain power. After the traumatic deaths of her family, Clare chases the culprits who are en-route to Lanceston, taking local tracker Billy (in an amazing debut from Baykali Ganambarr) along for the chase.
While the film’s second act might begin to feel like the beginnings of a simple revenge film, the beautiful juxtaposition of Clare’s Gaelic Irish and Billy’s Tasmanian Palawa cultures provides a wonderful insight into the destruction of English settlement on all fronts. The fact that English is a second language to both of them is a wonderful device. As Billy comes to understand Clare’s situation and mission, the two begin to bond over their predicament at the hands of the Crown.
While fictional, the film is thoroughly researched. Tasmania’s Black War – and the utter lawlessness it brought to its harsh terrain – is a backdrop, with Indigenous war parties burning houses and killing livestock, giving rise to ‘blacks’ being shot on sight, among more heinous outcomes. A particular scene where one of Hawkins’ men Ruse (impeccably played by Damon Herriman) finds and brings an indigenous woman back to the gang – nonchalantly leaving her small child behind in the bush – is particularly chilling.
Amazing performances and some excellent editing keep you on the edge of your seat for the full 136 minutes, but the constant gut-wrenching suspense and some regular gruesome scenes is not for the faint hearted. Nevertheless it’s a necessary film and a must watch for Australian cinefiles. Much like many Aussie suspense thrillers such as Snowtown, it will cleverly work with a number of different audiences while still staying true to its message.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Nightingale hits cinemas on Thursday, 29th August 2019.