There are almost no movies that come with a content warning about sexual assault. Jennifer Kent’s haunting new film “The Nightingale” does, and it’s a warning not to be taken lightly.
For those us of who use trigger warnings to navigate life, it’s sometimes better to be mentally prepared for the horrors depicted in the film. Set up a self-care plan in place ahead of nightmares or panic attacks it might bring up, or decide for your health’s sake that this film is better watched at another time in the safety of your home or perhaps not at all. What’s important for some viewers is that these warnings restore control to those who may have had it taken away.
It’s in that spirit (and the wishes of the film’s distributor) that I won’t go into some of the more visceral details of what happens in the cruel first 20 minutes of “The Nightingale.” In this film, writer and director Kent shifts from the supernatural thrills of her breakout sensation “The Babadook” to something more hellishly realistic.
Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict, lives with her caring husband and adorable baby in 1825 Tasmania under the uncaring jurisdiction of a British lieutenant, Hawkins (Sam Claflin). The lieutenant takes advantage of his social position and upends Clare’s life in a manner so heartless, it can leave an audience in stunned silence. She vows revenge for all the wrong that’s done to her and hires Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to find the man who’s taken everything from her.
Unlike most rape-revenge movies, there is no cathartic violence or gaze-y sexploitation titillation. There is only pain — and lots of it; the pain of loss, injustice, dehumanization and so much senseless death. Throughout these many different horrors, the lieutenant’s indifference to the suffering he’s caused works as a stand-in for this society’s uncaring attitude towards gender violence and racism.
Kent uses painstaking details to enhance her story, from giving her characters dialogue in Gaelic and Palawa Kant, an Aboriginal language of Tasmania, to filming Clare close-up as her body goes limp in terror at the sight of her abuser. The movie’s ruthless look at colonialism is just as unflinching as its examination of rape as an act of war. At first, Clare is equally; guilty of discriminating against her Aboriginal neighbors but softens when she finally recognizes their treatment in a colonial society for what it is: brutality.
The bleakness of “The Nightingale” trickles into its cinematography. Radek Ladczuk, who previously collaborated with Kent on “The Babadook,” cloaks Clare and Billy’s journey under a foreboding light. The water looks brackish, the clouds never seem to part, the characters look worn and their faces dirty; the lush greenery of Tasmania’s forest appears less enchanting than threatening. Another “Babadook” alum, editor Simon Njoo, returns to give Kent’s film sharp-edged cuts that keep the story at an erratic pace — frantic one moment, then painfully observant of the cruelty Kent doesn’t want to skip over. Her decision to show these horrible details feels deliberate, not for shock value but rather to force the viewer to examine their reaction to these events.
There is one stylistic escape into the realm of fantasy, but even that doesn’t offer the audience a reprieve from the heartache. In Clare’s fitful sleep, she thinks of her husband and baby, but those dreams soon warp into horror movie-like nightmares. It’s a hauntingly visual metaphor for post-traumatic stress, although none of the characters ever call it that. The sensations Clare experiences in these dreams bleed into reality, forcing her to relive her trauma while gnawing at her resolve to seek revenge.
Thankfully, there is one source of comfort in the movie. The dynamics between Billy and Clare shift as they come to learn more about each other’s past, creating a bond that few others understand. He cares for her as rage destroys her, and they unite in their anger against the English oppressors who have taken so much from them. Franciosi and Ganambarr’s intense performances sweep up the audience as effectively as Kent’s story. They’re equally matched by their on-screen enemy, who’s powerfully terrifying in his disregard for all others but himself. It’s a villainous part Claflin plays with a cool surface that thinly veils his character’s murderous contempt.
“The Nightingale” is complicated and divisive, but this was never going to be a movie to coddle its audience. The harsh delivery of its message may not be for everyone, but it’s a powerful statement all the same. It’s a movie that viewers might find difficult to love but slow to forget. “The Nightingale” is an angry movie, an echo from the past that we’ve learned, in the #MeToo era, to look for more closely in the margins of history books written by the conquerors.