With two films under her belt, Jennifer Kent is proving herself to be a formalist of some potency. First exploring grief and single parenting in her debut The Babadook, Kent utilised meticulously designed sets, pre-1950’s horror films and a handmade approach to create a deeply claustrophobic psychological horror which runs on anxiety in a way that is rarely approached by modern filmmakers.
Here in the filmmaker’s second feature, The Nightingale, a deliberate, brooding thriller, Kent creates an unsettlingly tense Australian western likened to John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005). The film holds a similar oppressive feel to The Babadook, but is broader in its aims, pricklier in its dynamics and more assertive in its execution. This an assured piece from a director growing in confidence.
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It can be seen from the film’s simple cold open. Kent establishes most of the film’s main players as well as the story memorably, through an assembly of central framed close-ups. Of course, mid shots are detailing the environment, but there is a clear delicacy in how these close-ups appear. Pinpointing to the audience each character’s motivations with detail yet economy, while also disguising the unrelenting brutality which is about to come.
The year is 1825. Irish Convict Clare Caroll, nicknamed The Nightingale due to her beautiful singing voice, works as a servant for a detachment for the Colonial forces now inhabiting Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). Claire’s life is quickly thrown into disarray after her husband inquires about his wife’s letter of recommendation. Clare’s obsessive Master, Lieutenant Hawkins, commits a horrendous act of violence upon her family, before looking to leave his post and secure a captaincy to the North of the country. Unacquainted with the land, a distraught Clare reluctantly enlists the help of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy to help find Hawkins to perform an act of revenge.
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In the hands of many this could have easily been a basic tale of revenge. The Nightingale in the hands of Kent is a complicated and emotionally draining gothic tale. Never shying away from the savagery of the colonists which existed during the time, it is less about an easy catharsis of bloody cinematic revenge and more about the grim consequences of those tainted by anguish and trauma. From the uneasy conversations shared between the two protagonists, to Kent’s use of central framing, freezing the haunting fragility felt by the two leads in tight close-ups. Even the desaturated, muted tones of the images capture an uneasy starkness in the atmosphere. It is notable that when blood is shed, the red colour marks itself on the screen.
In tandem with the film’s compositions, which sometimes slip into nightmarish visions, sound is also used to provide an unsettling atmosphere. From Clare’s soft singing voice juxtaposed with shots of baiting soldiers, to the consistent sound of anguished crying used to enrage the insidious Lieutenant Hawkins, there seems to be no corner of the film that provides any solace. With the film’s dynamics, no relationship within the piece is unbitter, conflict is found in each moment. An aspect which highlights the toxicity established by the colonists.
It is no surprise that a film with such little respite had such controversy on its initial screening. Kent is unremitting with the film’s grief and is more than happy to shift sands in terms of how we should feel about particular characters, showing many sides to the duo we follow. The film chiefly follows Clare’s purist of Hawkins, yet the racial tension between herself and Billy makes things challenging. Particularly after Billy becomes more prominent through the narrative. Credit should be given to the two leads, who remain engaging at every combatant point of their relationship.
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As expected, Second Sight fills this Blu-ray with a heap of detailed extras which help contextualise The Nightingale further. With an extras runtime which flows into the hours, including a vast array of interviews with cast and filmmakers, the disc also includes a video essay by film writer Alexandra Heller Nicholas, a piece which helps shape The Nightingale further, delving into the historical context of Tasmania, violence against women, and crucially reading the film as a complicated western about the aftereffects of trauma. This is a view opposed to the more typical rape-revenge movie as claimed by other reviewers.
The Nightingale is more than just a simple vengeance tale, but a story about cruelty created by the oppressive colonialism which gripped the country. It is a harsh, unrelenting western which underlines Jennifer Kent’s ability to take hold of common genres and bend them to her command, holding a rich atmosphere which lingers with a viewer for long after the credits roll.
The Nightingale is out on Limited Edition Blu-ray on 8th February from Second Sight Films.