One can only assume that those who (reportedly) walked out of screenings of this latest film from Jennifer Kent at the Sydney Film Festival were lodging an objection to the men of colonial Australia being portrayed as violently misogynistic. As unlikely as that sounds, there is nothing else here that could possibly ignite the level of indignation to justify such actions. Then again, there are always those desperate enough for attention to dish up some fake outrage in pursuit of putting themselves in the spotlight. Sure, Kent has delivered a grim revenge drama in which a young wife sets out in pursuit of the men who raped her and killed both her husband and newborn baby, but she has shown great restraint in her presentation of the sexual assaults. That isn’t to say that these scenes aren’t gut-wrenchingly, powerful, but there is certainly none of the lascivious, lingering voyeurism that we see too often when such scenes are lensed through a male gaze.
Opting for something completely different in the wake of her success with The Babadook, writer/director Kent has delivered something that is perhaps even scarier because of its proximity to reality. This story might be fictional, but we know that the indignities endured by Clare (Aisling Franciosi) are very much a reflection of what women were forced to endure during the British colonisation of Australia. What makes The Nightingale so powerful is the dynamic performance from Franciosi as a young woman who, with literally nothing left to lose, is determined to dish out her own brand of justice. When we first meet Clare, she remains in servitude to an obsessed Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who refuses to grant her freedom despite the fact that she has served her 7-year sentence. When Clare’s husband (Michael Sheasby) challenges Hawkins about the matter, the consequences are devastating and, hell-bent on revenge, Clare teams up with young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambar), who is haunted by demons of his own. Clare must overcome the unforgiving Tasmanian wilderness and her prejudices in her bid to chase down Hawkins, who has fled north on the promise of a promotion.
Despite what she has endured, Clare is not always a sympathetic character, particularly given the racism and disdain she unleashes on Billy. Sure, the relationship changes over the course of their journey as they come to the realisation that that they have more in common than they might have ever imagined, but it is only the extreme trauma that Clare has endured that allows you to forgive her treatment of the guide on whom she remains utterly reliant if she has any hope of tracking down Hawkins and his party, which includes an inept Sergeant Ruse (Damon Herrimen) and a young orphan boy (Charlie Shotwell) to whom Hawkins takes a liking. Despite the vastness of the landscape, the film feels very claustrophobic as both Hawkins and his pursuers find themselves at the mercy of the treacherous Tasmanian wilderness. The mountainous jungle crowds the camera, presenting a far different version of Australia’s natural landscape than the likes of Nicholas Roeg’s sun-drenched 1971 classic Walkabout, although the two films do share other characteristics.
It isn’t long into the film before you realise that there are only two ways this can end; Clare either achieves what she sets out to accomplish, or she dies trying. Neither outcome is going to leave the audience feeling good, but it is certainly worth your time to see it through. Whilst Franciosi, whose previous experiences have been in television, including a couple of episodes of Games of Thrones, is excellent as the deeply damaged Clare, Ganambar is perhaps even more impressive given that this is his first ever time on screen. It might be bleak and brutal, but The Nightingale is much more than that, serving as a reminder of the violence to which women and Aboriginal people were subjected during this particularly unpleasant period of Australian history.