There was a bit of a furore when Venice announced its competition lineup, which contained just one female director: Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent, who brought us the terrifying psychological horror The Babadook. So would the lone woman prevail? Not exactly, but this is an interesting film that has a little of Babadook about it.
The nightingale in question is a young Irish woman, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), who was brought to Tasmania as a convict and is now singing for a motley crew of soldiers in a garrison in the middle of the island. She is also singing for her freedom in the form of papers, yet the garrison’s Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who promised her those documents, can’t let his lovely songbird go. She is his property and he will do what he likes with her – and we soon see what he likes to do. Clare is married and we see the handsome couple with their beautiful baby, chatting in Gaelic and planning their future. Hopes for that future are dashed – literally – and Clare then sets out across the unrelenting jungle in search of her revenge. Accompanying her is an Aborigine tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr).
Kent’s story is thus one not just of a revenge tragedy, but a look at the oppression of women and Aborigines in nineteenth-century Australia. She focuses on the evolution of the odd couple’s relationship, which goes from mutual distrust and dislike to grudging trust and then friendship. We also see Clare’s shocking evolution from maligned servant to avenger and in one scene she is reminiscent of Sissy Spacek’s Carrie, another abused innocent who becomes a blood-soaked killer. Yet the horror lies more in the white man’s actions than in Clare’s and Kent repeatedly depicts the horrors perpetrated by the British colonialists on the native population and on the white convicts, pounding the message home in a variety of gruesome ways.
Those horrors include rape, and I was disappointed to see three rape scenes graphically portrayed. Kent could have found a way to keep those acts off screen and to have three similar scenes was three too many. This is a criticism that goes for some other scenes: Kent spends an awful lot of time showing us trees. They are beautiful and the cinematography is amazing (the silhouetted snarly branches of some of them reminded me of The Babadook and his horrible hands), yet we don’t need to see them repeatedly. Once in the jungle, Clare has nightmares and again similar scenes are re-enacted. This repetition starts to gall and slows down the film unnecessarily, making the viewer impatient to move on with the story.
However, Kent’s film is a brutal reminder of Australia’s unpalatable past and the country’s inherent racism. Although flawed, it is beautiful. And the two leads are sympathetic and engaging. While The Nightingale may be a disappointment after The Babadook, Jennifer Kent shows that there are many types of horror, and the most insidious are those perpetrated by the white man and they are relentless.