A major step up in scope for Jennifer Kent after her excellent debut film The Babadook, this sophomore effort is a brutal, bloody but historically honest look into both the life of women and Aboriginal People during a period in Australia’s history that is certainly not taught in Australian schools.
Taking place in the 1830’s, the period is hauntingly realistic in its depiction and these realities provide the catalyst for an excellent, original story that, according to Kent in the Q&A she was nice enough to offer, involved years of research so she could feel comfortable telling this story in an accurate and respectful manner. She has exceeded her goal: Australia has not produced a film of this magnitude and quality in a very long time.
Clare is an Irish convict living in Tasmania (known as Van Diemen’s Land during this time) and had finally escaped a life out of physical chains. However, this alleged freedom was made possible by a leftenant with ulterior motives and she now is forced to battle the conditions forced upon her. She begins as an innocent woman with a beautiful voice, but once this man takes advantage of her in a ruthless way, her attitude quickly changes. Upset and enraged, she lusts for revenge and soon wants to put a bullet in the officer responsible, no matter the obstacles. However, this officer has already left the village, using an Aboriginal tracker to lead his group north towards a promised promotion.
Clare also decides to enlist the help of a tracker, once others in the community find it apparent that no words can stop her from heading toward sure death. An unfortunate but true trope of this period is that the tracker, Billy, is of course another Aboriginal person. The two begin to follow the movements of the officer’s group. Their journey is long. It is exhausting not long after it has begun, and the path ahead is fraught with as much emotional torture as there is physical.
At first, the two share a very unstable bond, a partnership of sorts that forms the centre-piece of the film: both how their relationship changes as their journey lengthens, as well as the challenges they face both alone and together. The experiences they must face change both of them, while Clare is haunted by nightmares that offer an insight into her past.
The promise of another Schilling at the end of their journey begins to leave Billy’s mind as he begins to care about Clare’s well-being, rather than simply helping her track her prey. What started as a hostile but mutual agreement transforms as the characters gradually learn more about each other on their long voyage that makes up most of the 2 hour-plus run-time
It is a powerful demonstration that two people from entirely different worlds can begin to understand each other in the way depicted. Their shared hatred towards the English certainly plays a part, as one thing that they have in common is that these ‘settlers’ have wreaked havoc, tearing apart both their lives. They also both have experienced and truly know psychological pain, an often overlooked reason for two people to bond.
Despite the ruthless violence that is peppered throughout the movie, and some scenes very hard to watch (scenes whose importance to the story seem to have been vastly misunderstood by some), the story is ultimately about grasping onto hope when the way forward seems impassable, to continue pushing forward despite the odds. It is also a fascinating dual character study/relationship between very different people who share the pain that has been inflicted on them by the immoral British occupation of Australia. Additionally, during the 1830’s, this occupation (personally the word invasion seems more appropriate) is young, having only been in effect for around 60 years thanks to Charles Darwin’s declaration that the native Aboriginal people were sub-human, opening the legal door for the English to settle.
But that is another story entirely, and unfortunately a little known fact,
The final act ends on a note that at first seems underwhelming, until the meaning behind it becomes apparent, at which point the power and scale of the film as a whole feels like an unexpected gut-punch. Aisling Franciosis as Clare offers her haunting voice as a trained singer, for the most part singing incredible, traditional Irish songs which were recorded live. It adds more to the roller-coaster of a role take that takes her through what feels like the extremity of every human possible emotion. With her face featuring in many close ups, she couldn’t have been more believable.
In his first acting role (though a performer of Aboriginal dance), Baykali Ganambarr won the ‘Marcello Mastroianni’ Award for Best Young Actor award at Venice, and for good reason. His portrayal of Billy goes hand in hand with Aisling’s performance, and given the effortless chemistry they share on screen, Baykali was forced to keep up with his co-star as the film would never have worked if either was of obvious lesser quality.
This chemistry rises and dips as they journey forward, another testament to their skill. Baykali is seemingly a born actor, though in a Q&A after the film, he was extremely modest and when these statements on the power of his performance were offered by the audience. He seemed genuinely speechless, only offering that he hopes to act again. This is a man who, if he decides to, could be the next David Gulpilil – the first Aboriginal actor to feature in major Australian films.
The Nightingale, while very confronting at times, is an incredibly moving film that could easily be labelled as epic in scope, that usually cringe-worthy word that nonetheless feels appropriate here given the physical and emotional territory covered over two hours. Jennifer Kent has created a near flawless period film that hits hard and will linger some time. This film, along with Sweet Country, are essential viewing to learn more about the young history of this country, a history that is unfortunately yet unsurprisingly buried by modern day society. Hopefully The Nightingale can make a difference, no matter how small
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