The Nightingale is an absolutely unforgettable film that tells the brutal honesty of what living under British colonization was like. It’d be morbid to call it an enjoyable watch, but it is an incredible cinematic experience that’d be a mistake to miss. (HRM: 5/5)
Claire (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict, has spent the past three years serving her sentence in Tasmania under British officer “Hawkins” (Sam Claflin). She, her her husband ‘Aidan’ (Michael Sheasby), and…, and their newborn baby live in a small hut that Hawkins provided, along with a horse. Although Clare technically completed her sentence nearly three months ago, he continually refuses to send her letter of release, preferring to keep her as his property for him to use as he pleases.
It doesn’t take long for Aidan to realize that Hawkins has been hurting Clare, and goes to demand that he write the letter to release her. He has asked nicely before, but this time he has had a bit too much to drink and the conversation quickly spirals into violence. An official who had meant to promote Hawkins to a better station in a town up north witnesses the brawl and withdraws his recommendation. An enraged Hawkins, along with two of his soldiers, proceeds to rape Clare in her hut in front of her family. The scene ends with Aidan and their baby murdered and Clare knocked unconscious with the butt of a rifle.
She wakes up the next morning to the aftermath of this scene. Overcome with grief and rage, she marches with her child in her arms to find the men who committed this terrible act, only to find that they’ve already embarked on a journey through the Tasmanian “bush” to claim Hawkins’ promotion up north. Overwhelmed by her tragedy and determined to take revenge, she enlists the help of Aboriginal tracker “Billy” (Baykali Ganambarr), who has his own personal history marked by violence and tragedy. Together, they take a harrowing and dangerous journey through the wilderness in search of true vengeance.
I knew this movie was a special one from the moment the lights went down and the theater screen transitioned to a 4:3 aspect ratio. I was surprised; having read a description of the plot before, I was not expecting it to be a 4:3 film. But as it progressed through moment after moment of stomach wrenching tragedy I realized it was an ingenious choice on the part of the filmmakers. Rather than give the characters, all of whom are locked into their roles under the British empire, the room to wander within the frame, they are all constricted with no ability to move or even breath. The frame’s purpose is not to capture the landscape, rather the characters’ inescapable conditions. In close ups, it serves to focus all attention on the subject’s face, capturing the micro expressions that communicate their inner state; in wide shots, the frame conveys the uncertainty of their journeys, neither we or the characters can see far past the current moment. It felt almost as if i as an audience member was locked within the frame alongside the characters, with no room for my eyes or thoughts to wander from the tragedies playing out before me.
The centerpoint of The Nightingale is absolutely the acting. It is a film full of tragic human moments that most people couldn’t imagine experiencing, and required each actor to bring everything to the table. The aforementioned scene of rape and death (which is only the beginning of the suffering) took two days to film because of the extremity of its content. There was even a psychological advisor on set to make sure the details of the performances were accurate. Making a film like this, it would be easy to only capture the surface level of these experiences, but Kent clearly wanted to depict the raw truth of what being alive at this time was like. The audience is able to feel every breath every moment, as if we were there with them.
Since watching The Nightingale I can’t get it out of my head. I keep having flashbacks to the most horrible moments, but brief glimpses of the moments of exquisite and hopeful filmmaking that saturated it remind me how worth the pain this film is. I have never cried this much in a film, not by a long shot. It’s a rough watch, and your mood won’t be the same for the rest of the day after watching it. But I swear to you, the superb filmmaking and storytelling of Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is worth the tears.
© Hannah Mayo (August 15 2019) FF2 Media
Photo Credits: Matt Nettheim
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