Five years since her debut horror classic The Babadook, Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent returns with a staggeringly blunt, brilliant and brutal second feature that massively surpasses its predecessor. The Nightingale tells the 1825, pre-Tasmania set story of Clare Carroll (Aisling Franciosi): an Irish ex-convict, wife and mother who works as a maid in a local tavern. Known nearby as The Nightingale because of her beautiful singing, Clare finds herself performing for the local militia, led by the despotic, besotted and deeply psychotic Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin): who arranged her early prison release. After a devastating incident tears Clare’s family apart, she is suddenly forced to abscond and travel north to Launceston in a quest to end her suffering.
The Nightingale captivates via exceptional performances, striking austere imagery/settings (dilapidated dwellings, corpse laden forests with gothic greys), and controlled, expertly structured storytelling. Franciosi is outstanding as Clare, conveying angst ablaze rage without drifting into histrionics. The Black War zone also forms part of devastating milieu in which the story unravels, offering obstacles, setbacks and diversions, at a time when Van Diemen’s Land became Tasmania, a self-governing colony, with allusions to modern society/political climates, but the plot doesn’t set out draw parallels. It’s adorned by themes of poverty/class, extreme racism, chauvinism, imperialism and militia corruption which makes the backdrop of the British Empire’s post-penal settlement so commanding.
Complicated character flaws connect The Nightingale to the present. Clare is innately racist and expresses this fervidly via barked lines like “I’m not travelling with a black! I’ll wake up in a pot for someone’s dinner”. Secondary characters are equally compound and made fascinating through depth and glaring defects. Even the evilest are enriched to strengthen relevance. Hawkins’ relationship with his child underling reveals a caring side stemming from early abandonment. This is not mechanically extrapolated or overly emphasised, just a subtle, imperative connection.
Clare’s relationship with “boy” Guide Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) buds to become motorised when their intentions strengthen, align and (in Billy’s case) are reinforced towards the end of the second act. Billy’s role within the slave trade state presents him as psychologically cleft as his master A scene where he is asked to sit at the table by an elderly couple providing shelter is devastatingly poignant in how it presents a gateway through which Billy projects a gestating rage. Further profundity is also inferred through scenes in which Clare stares at the sky after committing an act of violence as though looking to God for forgiveness, and later while bonding with Billy by campfire.
Instead of hurling herself onto the sequel/ franchise bandwagon with a bland Babadook follow-up, Kent has taken time to fashion a second masterpiece, grounded in historical realism with a few flickers of Babadook-like dark fantasy during dream sequences, and pitiless violence. Kent wisely doesn’t distance herself from horror per se, there are scenes here that are far more disturbing than recent but more marketable genre hokum. Instead Kent presents a capacity to do more than just petrify. The Babadook had a strong mother/child relationship drama at its core to augment its spectral facets, but The Nightingale demonstrates her ability to work wonders on a grander canvas which elevates Kent as a writer/director who can transcend genre trappings and still shred nerves into metaphorical tagliatelle.