The Nightingale (4 stars)

The Nightingale

Sundance London 2019: Agonisingly brutal period thriller from Jennifer Kent

Australian director Jennifer Kent follows 2014's The Babadook with a historical horror-show that comes face to face with the atrocities committed during the colonisation of her home country. Playing out as a bush-based revenge thriller with a western bent, it sees a young Irish woman forge an initially uneasy alliance with her Aboriginal Australian guide, before they learn to walk side by side in their pain.

Set in the British penal colony Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) in 1825, Aisling Franciosi (TV's The Fall) plays sweet-voiced singer Clare, a convicted thief and new mother called upon to entertain a ragtag group of English soldiers. After enduring unimaginable loss and injury at the hands of these men, led by Sam Claflin's sadistic Hawkins, Clare heads deep into the outback with bloody murder in mind. She's accompanied by reluctant tracker Billy (newcomer Baykali Ganambarr), a man who has survived more than his fair share of stomach-churning cruelty.

The tight Academy ratio gives proceedings a terrifying intimacy; it's less about the perils of a landscape drained of its more comforting colours, more about those who lurk just out of sight, and about suffering through their appalling intentions. As Claflin bristles with dangerous levels of entitlement, it recalls his performance in contemporary drama The Riot Club, with white male privilege then and now spilling over into violence. At the fore, Franciosi makes for an astonishingly resilient and determined heroine; although her own prejudices colour her early interactions with Billy, they find common ground in their shared hatred of the English.

The Nightingale joins a long tradition of grim, wilderness-based Australian thrillers; it's like an earlier-era companion piece to Damien Power's Killing Ground, which dealt with the legacy of the extermination and oppression of Indigenous Australians. Through heartfelt performances and confrontational camerawork, Kent's film takes you into the thick of their agony and that of a similarly dehumanised Caucasian woman. It's hard to watch and that's precisely the point. For those who still hark back to the good ol' days of Empire, it's a lesson in the brutal reality of that particular delusion.

Screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2019: London. General release TBC.

The Nightingale

  • 4 stars
  • 2018
  • Australia / Canada / USA
  • 2h 16min
  • Directed by: Jennifer Kent
  • Cast: Sam Claflin, Aisling Franciosi, Damon Herriman

Clare (Franciosi) is a singer and convicted thief in 1825 Van Diemens’ Land who, after enduring terrible loss at the hands of some English soldiers, sets out with reluctant tracker Billy (Ganambarr) and murder in her mind. Franciosi is an astonishingly resilient and determined heroine and it’s a grim reminder of the…