For her follow-up to The Babadook, writer-director Jennifer Kent has taken another oblique approach to a popular genre – and again presents a driven female protagonist whose plight turns out to be less cut-and-dried than it seems. In this case, the genre is the Western – or at least that particularly grim, intense Australian equivalent – and the setting is Tasmania in 1825, just a few years after the gruesome incidents chronicled in Jonathan Auf Der Heide’s Van Diemen’s Land.
Clare (Aisling Franciosi), the nightingale of the title, is an Irish convict woman who has served out her term and married a farmer (Michael Sheasby) but still needs a letter of discharge from Hawkins (Sam Claflin), a bored and cruel officer who forces her literally to sing for his pleasure and also uses her as a sex slave. Various circumstances – including Hawkins’ desperate wish to be promoted out of this backwater – lead to a horrific series of crimes against Clare and her family, which leaves her near dead. However, she survives and is determined to get revenge – impressing aborigine Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) as a guide in order to pursue Hawkins and his minions Ruse (Damon Herriman) and Jago (Harry Greenwood) along a trail through wilderness.
Both parties are delayed by walking into conflicts between colonists and aborigines – and, indeed, despite what the genre insists are urgent plot priorities, offender and avenger both get distracted during a race against time and the film starts to question some basics of the archetypal story. Most notably, we’re asked to wonder why we instinctively give more weight to Clare’s burning need to get back at the specific people who have wronged her than Billy’s generalised resentment of an entire race who are in the process of killing not just his immediate family but his entire people and their culture. Just as in The Babadook it developed that the haunted mother was as much a menace as the spectre scratching at the door, the I Spit On Your Grave-style avenging angel here is given pause by Billy’s example … while he struggles to parse the difference between English oppressors and Irish convicts when they both look equally white (and equally culpable) to him.
In its plot outline, the story is familiar – it’s very close to the Raquel Welch Western Hannie Caulder – but the Tasmanian setting gives a different historical context and look, with a jungle-like landscape as opposed to the western deserts. But it’s not just the uniforms and the accents that are unusual – taking its time at 136 minutes, it risks alienating audiences by breaking with melodramatic convention. Simply being wronged and determined does not make Clare magically proficient with a musket … and though she guts one of her tormentors early on in a messy struggle, she often hesitates or backs off when she has a chance to end her quest. Similarly, the villain has only four days to make an impossible trek to secure his promotion but dawdles to experiment with a more benevolent role as a father figure to a lad taken along on the journey or backslide into brutal colonising rapist when Ruse drags an Aboriginal woman (Magnolia Maymuru) into camp even though this starts up a feud with wilderness-accustomed spear-throwers who could easily slaughter his whole party.
This urge to halt and look closer or from another angle is a Kent trademark, and probably explains why her films are so divisive. The Nightingale is a rich, harrowing, atmospheric film – bristling with anger over historical outrages, but not blind to the fact that the crimes under indictment are still being compounded around the world.