The Academy is always a fan of the historical epic. They love movies about perseverance to hard times during a bygone era, from “Lincoln” and “Glory” to “Amadeus” and “Saving Private Ryan.” One of the movies that they didn’t touch in 2020, despite being a relatively mesmerizing picture, was Jennifer Kent’s 2019 “The Nightingale.” Despite it being a virtually gritty and gruesome journey in to darkness a la “The Revenant,” the Academy never offered the film its due, even in the realm of cinematography and or acting. There’s not even a best original screenplay nod handed to the thriller, and it’s a shame. Jennifer Kent’s revenge period piece is the antithesis of the glossy Oscar fodder that they stumble over themselves to honor every year.
Jennifer Kent debuted with the absolutely brilliant “The Babadook,” a horror drama about grief, the manifestation of grief, and how sometimes it can consume us and destroy us if we’re not careful. It also gave life to a modern horror icon, to boot. Kent followed up that instant classic with what can easily be described as being dragged through a whirlwind of emotions, and an ending that’ll leave you virtually drained and exhausted. Ms. Kent doesn’t go for the easy genre follow up, risking a sophomore slump, but instead opts for a virtually immense dramatic thriller. You can kind of see why the movie wasn’t even acknowledged, as it confronts ugly themes that are still relevant. There are overtones about rape culture, colonialism, imperialism, exploitation of the immigrant, and strong xenophobia.
Most of all, though, Kent explores how these ugly, horrendous themes affect children, and the stain that this violence leaves on the world. Aisling Franciosi is Clare Carroll, a young Irish ex-convict who is bought in to freedom by the British Lieutenant Hawkins. Clare is free by definition, as she’s allowed to build a farm, get married, and have a baby girl, but Hawkins, who is in love with her, keeps her chained to him at all times. She’s forced to not only serve him and his unit in a pub, but she’s expected to sing for them in her pub, and is routinely raped by Hawkins, in spite of rejecting every one of his advances.
The slimy Hawkins persists, despite her insistence that he let her go, and commands that she follow him and his battalion when he’s relocated. Despite her objections, Clare finds no other option besides running away with her child and husband Aidan, another ex-convict bought out of jail and forced in to servitude. But running away could prove fruitless as it threatens to put Clare right back in to prison. Tethered to the obsessive Hawkins, Aidan demands he let them loose, allowing them to live their lives, but after a confrontation in a bar, Hawkins and his slimy pair of friends decide to punish the trio beyond repair. Jennifer Kent builds up to what is the centerpiece of “The Nightingale,” and she’s a master of creating absolute chaos that will test the mettle of even the strongest viewers.
Hawkins and his men proceed to not only victimize Clare, but murder Aidan when he fights back. As she’s raped, Clare’s spirit ultimately snaps as Hawkins’ accomplice Private Jago watches the events unfold and in a panic literally smashes Clare’s infant daughter in to a wall, killing her instantly. Kent doesn’t cut away, either, prompting a full blunt glimpse in to what ultimately destroys Clare and causes her to go virtually insane. While she does manage to find some semblance of movement in the way she decides to track Hawkins and his men down and make them pay, Clare’s real battle is with the grief and trauma of losing her family, and the notion that Hawkins and his men just might get away with their crimes.
In a scene that might hit very close to home for so many, as Clare beckons her neighbors to bury her daughter and husband Aidan as she sets out for revenge, they beg her to just let it go. They know that in this world these powerful men will barely get a slap on the wrist, while Clare will suffer for meager emotional and psychological compensation. But where can Clare go in this situation? Society is on the men’s sides, especially during the black wars where in exhausted British soldiers took over Australia and chased the natives out. If injustices can be done to a whole race without repercussions, what hope does a woman like Clare have?
“We had psychologists on set whilst doing the scenes, because it’s so wrecking,” co-star Baykali Ganambarr said, “For Aisling [Franciosi] it was really, really hard. Also for Sam [Claflin]…” Suffice to say, Jennifer Kent is not above putting the audience through the emotional and psychological wringer time and time again, with so many scenes of sexual assault, rape, and child abuse. Thankfully none of it ever feels gratuitous and serves narrative purposes to punctuate the inherent cruelty of these war torn men. The more Clare descends in to darkness, the more horrific the film becomes.
As Clare ventures in to the wilderness of Australia, she’s plagued with terrifying nightmares of her husband and daughter, all of which feel very much like a self contained horror film in its own right. Kent draws out the dream sequences, as Clare’s own psyche punishes her for witnessing the destruction of her life, while also seeking vengeance. Director Kent doesn’t glorify the quest for revenge as Clare is forced to seek aide from Billy, an aborigine whose been chased off his land and witnessed his own family decimated.
He’s broken just like Clare, and even worse, he and his proud people have demonized by locals. Clare is never above stigmatizing Billy either, despite desperately needing his help, and she learns that the idea of revenge is easier conjured than the actual act of it all. The climax boils down to a poetic siege of violence and rage, as Clare and Billy represent the exploited minority, and the minorities that would continue to be victimized, exploited, chased out of their own homes, and ultimately become ghosts.
Director Jennifer Kent manages to conjure up incredible performances from the entire cast and everyone from Franciosi, to Sam Claflin are downright spectacular. Much like “The Babadook,” Jennifer Kent’s genre picture stands outside the conventions of its genre and I am hopeful time will help it appreciate in value, molding various sub-genres in to an absolute masterpiece.
It just requires extensive psychological preparation, word to the wise.