By Jake Sweltz
If I called Jennifer Kent’s THE NIGHTINGALE a feminist neo-western revenge thriller, you might assume you’re getting KILL BILL or something. This is not that. In fact, Kent’s film is a direct refutation the sort of film that would rather stylize violence for entertainment than reckon with its traumatic reality.
During the course of THE NIGHTINGALE’s nearly three-hour-long running time, I didn’t have a lot of fun. That’s entirely the point. The plot isn’t dissimilar from TRUE GRIT or any number of other classic Hollywood westerns: a woman named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is wronged, her family destroyed, and she sets out for revenge with the assistance of a wily companion, in this case an aboriginal guide named Billy (Baykal Ganambarr). But tonally, the work it most resembles is Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic western novel BLOOD MERIDIAN, where the sadism is so thorough as to become nearly invisible, as much a part of the landscape as the trees or the sky.
Film, though, is a very different medium than fiction, and the violence (particularly the sexual violence) in THE NIGHTINGALE is too immediate, too immersive to become invisible. You can’t escape it, let alone ignore it. You’re inside of it. Kent emphasizes this with repeated close ups and POV shots from the perspective of characters upon whom unspeakable acts are being perpetrated.
The film demands a lot from its leads, and both Franciosi and Ganambarr are excellent as reluctant companions on a hellish journey through the literal ruins of their pasts. Sam Claflin is also appropriately domineering as Clare’s abuser Lieutenant Hawkins, but the part is so cartoonishly evil it verges on comedy. Nevertheless, the narrative’s broadly allegorical nature allows for broad performances to match, and several scenes use the Hawkins character to illustrate how abuse is passed from one person to another like a virus.
There’s an extended interlude featuring a “kind” Englishman whose attitude seems to contrast that of the sadistic, racist soldiers. He invites Clare and Billy into his home and has his wife feed them supper. This sequence has been misread by some critics as an example of cowardice on Kent’s part for not sticking to her guns. What they’re missing is that the Englishman’s “acceptance” of Billy at his dinner table is the final humiliation of a subjugated people whose way of life has been completely supplanted by another in their own homeland. It’s the kind of sequence Ousmane Sembène would appreciate.
Fittingly, there’s no real catharsis when Clare finally does catch up with her tormentors. After brutally murdering one of Hawkins’ underlings, she finds herself paralyzed the moment she has the man himself in her sights. Is Clare too shaken from her first murder to inflict that kind of violence again? Or does her catatonic reaction reflect the kind of passivity many survivors of sexual crimes report in the presence of their abusers?
The main feminist thrust of THE NIGHTINGALE is one of intersectionality; it suggests that what ultimately bonds oppressed people (in this case, women and aboriginals) is trauma. They may speak different tongues and even have opposing values, but they both know how it feels being raped by whitey. Kent’s film is explicitly designed to make us (i.e. predominantly white, male critics and viewers) feel it, too.
The opening sequence, in which Clare sings onstage for a troop of leering Englishmen, is instructive. Kent turns the camera on the audience of filthy men, most of whom are more focused on the—ahem—beauty of the singer than the song itself. After Clare finishes singing, we cut to the title card. It’s a masterful metaphor for how plebeian male audiences typically regard even the most high-minded films. “Who cares what you’re saying? Just get to the sex and the violence.” Rest assured, THE NIGHTINGALE gives us plenty. And in delivering the goods reminds us to be careful what we wish for.
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