The Nightingale Review: Kent’s sophomore outing gives a fresh, new perspective on revenge
Coming off her hit horror debut, The Babadook, writer/director Jennifer Kent sophomore effort is a grisly revenge tale with more female perspective, stellar performances, and slow-burning suspense.
The film, set in 1825, follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict woman, who works with her husband (Michael Sheasby) for a group of English soldiers. However, when a British Officer, Hawkins (Sam Claflin), rapes her with a group of other soldiers and kills her family in the process, she is hellbent on revenge and sets off to hunt him down. With the help of an Aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), Clare chases the officer and his group down through the Tasmanian Wilderness to exact her revenge as she’s haunted by the tragedy the solider have brought on her.
On the surface, it’s easy to write off The Nightinegale as another rape-revenge film, like I Spit on Your Grave or The Last House on the Left, however with Kent involved, there’s a female perspective to the story that makes it unique. At first, Clare falls in line with the rage-filled heroines that we’re used to seeing, but rather than just be filled with bloodlust and focusing on her exacting brutal and gory revenge, Clare is dealing with so much more. From dealing with the fact that she kills one of the soldiers to having nightmares about every awful thing that has happened to her, Clare isn’t just empowered through violence, but through overcoming her fears and tragedy. Not only do these visions and nightmares let Kent flex her horror muscles, which are stronger than ever, but it keeps Clare compassionate and doesn’t strip away her humanity. Although she seems like very intent on committing brutal physical acts on those that the men that have wronged her, she goes through a much more compelling arc that other films in the genre don’t usually allow. Her journey and final act of revenge against Hawkins ends in a bit of a surprising way and, while I didn’t exactly find it to be the most satisfying end at first, it grew on me because it showed her as strong in a different kind of way that I heavily respected.
The performances are all-around spectacular as well and there’s a lot of growth between Clare and Billy that was refreshing to see. Franciosi gives a harrowing performance that embodies the pain, determination, and heartbreak she’s going through. She holds nothing back with the turmoil that Clare is constantly going through and viewers will immediately connect to the emotional struggles she faces. Ganambarr also puts in a great performance filled with some refreshing moments of comedic relief and emotional complexity that comes from a tragic background. Rather than just keeping him as a “sidekick” to Clare, Kent actually utilizes him to tell another story of revenge and empowerment as he constantly faces discrimination and hardships solely because of the color of his skin. This discrimination is even causes strife in the relationship between him and Clare, but a realization about their common disgust for the English soldiers allows them to have a touching friendship that makes their plight against Hawkins more engaging to see – especially when you realize that Hawkins is a legitimately disgusting individual.
There aren’t many villains as despicable and stomach-turning as Hawkins and the performance from Claflin is just deliciously evil. He holds nothing back in making Hawkins a character that you just want to start booing at the second you see him come into frame. There’s definitely something intriguing about his motivations to simply move up in the ranks, but you never focus on that as there’s no redeeming qualities about him or his underling, Ruse (Damon Herriman), and you’re basically just waiting for them to get the cold revenge they deserve. Both of them harness a darkness and cruelty that can be felt throughout the film and is a strong part of what Kent brings to the film.
The way Kent captures cruel acts of murder and rape are absolute horrifying to watch and it’s something that makes watching Clare’s journey much more realistic. Nothing about what is happening is glorified or cinematic, but rather gritty and gross. It’s oddly not explicit, but the acting and reactions leave a psychological impact on its viewers. From the lifeless and dead look that Clare has when she is being raped to the horrified look of the soldier as Clare kills him, The Nightingale can definitely be a tough watch, but it’s hard not to respect Kent for this darker and more realistic tone that she sets for Clare’s journey. It makes moments like this leave a stronger impact on its viewers and I constantly felt chills and a sense of disgust that should be associated with scenes like this and that’s not something that’s often done when it probably should. Even the dark tone can be felt in the environment with more sickening imagery of how the Aboriginals are treated and how muddy and mucky the environment can look.
The Nightingale is not only another strong showing for Kent that delves into the issues of the “rape-revenge” genre and boasts some incredible performances but is also an effective film in showcasing her talents as a filmmaker. She’s easily one of the top female filmmakers currently working and if she continues to put out more excellent works like The Nightingale, she’s going to stay that way for quite some time.