Hard to sit through and harder to forget, “The Nightingale” is a brutal and poetic tale of revenge and hardship in 19th century Australia — and proof that director Jennifer Kent, following her astonishing debut in “The Babadook,” is an artistic force.
It’s 1825, and young Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi) is the only pretty face a unit of lonely British soldiers sees in their posting in Tasmania. A servant, Clare sings for the troops’ entertainment, and for the whims of Lt. Hawkins (Sam Claflin), their ambitious and arrogant commander.
Clare has finished her sentence for theft, back home in Ireland, but Hawkins refuses to sign the papers that would give her the freedom she has earned. So she waits, with her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and their baby son.
Then something happens. The movie’s distributors have asked critics not to describe that something in detail, so I won’t. I will say it’s horrific, possibly triggering to some audiences, and leaves Clare eager to seek revenge on Hawkins and his officers.
Hawkins, afraid the fort’s new major (Christopher Stollery) will deny him his sought-after promotion, rushes north to apply in person to the colony’s commander. It’s an arduous journey, four or five days, with Hawkins accompanied by his loutish sergeant, Ruse (Damon Herriman), and greenhorn Ensign Jago (Harry Greenwood), and three servants: Two convicts and a boy, Eddie (Charlie Shotwell). Hawkins has also hired an elderly native tracker, Uncle Charlie (Charlie Jampijinpa Brown), to guide them through the wilderness.
Clare, on horseback, goes after Hawkins and his men. She finds another tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), to get her close to Hawkins’ party. Billy, like Clare, has lost much at the hands of the “English bastards,” as he calls them, and slowly their commonalities overcome the barriers of bigotry between them.
Much has been said of the violent scenes Kent, as writer and director, puts on the screen, and there’s no denying the intense power those moments hold. Out of context, they aren’t as awful as some gory slasher movies — but in context, they are devastating, because Kent invests so much into her characters, particularly the resilient Clare and the spiritually battered Billy. As we get to know them, we feel more deeply the cruelty inflicted on them by the likes of Hawkins.
Having created a superatural evil so convincingly in “The Babadook,” the human monsters here are even more fearsome. Claflin becomes the embodiment of English privilege, who believes everything — his promotion, respect, Clare’s favor — is his simply because he wants it. Also effective, as the boorish sergeant, is Herriman, who’s having a moment right now playing cult leader Charles Manson in both Netflix’ “Mindhunter” and in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”
Ganambarr is a dancer who has never acted on screen before, but he gives a moving performance that captures Billy’s pride for his people and his guile that has allowed him to survive lethal racism. Ganambarr also is the receptacle that carries, effortlessly, the research into Aboriginal culture that Kent and her advisers gathered — including the use of the Palawa Kani language, a modern revival of once-lost ancient tongues.
But the blood-red heart of “The Nightingale” is Franciosi. The actress (perhaps familiar to “Game of Thrones” fans as the mysterious Lyanna Stark) seethes as Clare is so devastatingly wronged, shows determination as she sets her sights on revenge, and shows her humanity when she must confront the deadly results behind that vengeance. Franciosi goes through a lot in “The Nightingale,” and her reward is that audiences go through it with her.
Opened August 2 in select cities; opens Friday, August 30, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated R for strong violent and disturbing content including rape, language throughout, and brief sexuality. Running time: 136 minutes; in English, and Scottish Gaelic and Palawa Kani (Tasmanian Aboriginal), with subtitles.