The first time Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is raped in writer-director Jennifer Kent’s sophomore feature, The Nightingale, the camera follows her gaze to the crackling fireplace in front of her. But the scene doesn’t end there. Instead, the camera cuts back to Clare’s face, where her horror and pain melts into numbness as she realizes that no amount of fighting will help her break free. Though she may find momentary escape from her assault by staring into the dancing fire, the audience isn’t meant to do the same. We’re meant to watch. And then, later in the film, we watch her being raped again, and then again.
The Nightingale, set during the British colonization of Australia in 1825, is an unquestionably harrowing ordeal, trading the supernatural anxieties of Kent’s feature-length directorial debut, The Babadook, for more earthly horrors. Claire, a young Irish convict, continues to be held in servitude under Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), despite having served her sentence. Especially under these colonialist systems, the shit rolls unequivocally downhill: Hawkins awaits his transfer out of the Tasmanian wilderness, and so Clare, too, must wait. Only recipients of the lieutenant’s arbitrary favor—random convicts or whichever underling irritates him the least—skirt his petulant wrath and unchallenged entitlement, enabled as it is by the society built atop the bones of the land’s indigenous people.
Left for dead alongside the corpses of her husband and infant child, Clare pursues Hawkins into the wilderness, hiring an Aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), to guide her. Billy and Clare become reluctant partners in suffering, at first suspicious and hostile toward one another. One scene around a campfire finds the pair engaging in a sort of misery contest, comparing the trials of their respective peoples to argue who has it worst at the bottom of the class system. The Nightingale’s trajectory in this regard is conventional, as the two forge a tenuous trust through late-night heart-to-hearts or moments like the one where Billy fishes Clare out of raging river currents. The bones of this sort of story run through many a glamorized western, if not countless other genres, which leave Kent’s kinetic style and unflinching eye for the era’s cruelty as the film’s distinguishing factors, to limited success.
With its unabashed brutality and its suffering protagonists floundering through a hell made by white men, the dirt-caked pressure cooker of The Nightingale feels akin to an S. Craig Zahler joint, albeit without the intermittent respites of his heightened grindhouse leanings. But where Zahler foregrounds his interest in characters’ idiosyncrasies, Kent’s protagonists scarcely rise beyond their function as instruments of thematic despair. The Babadook was hardly subtle, and in the move to a more realistic setting with her sophomore feature, Kent’s numerous subtext-as-text metaphorical sledgehammers are no longer given abstract visual form as a single dapper monstrosity, but awkwardly distributed among the various characters. Hawkins, for example, finds himself instructing a literal child, and Clare insists her experiences have changed her by saying of her past self, “That girl is dead.”
Though The Nightingale isn’t an overtly graphic film, its sheer degree of unrepentant misery feels less like a dutiful show of authenticity than a function of Kent’s loud, declarative style of filmmaking. The ever-growing pile of indigenous corpses fulfills its familiar function as a tool in white filmmakers’ ongoing fascination with the violence endured by people of color, whose basic humanity comes a distant second to the shock of seeing them shot in the head. Unlike Paul Verhoeven’s similarly uncompromising medieval drama Flesh and Blood, where a band of mercenaries rape and pillage in a deluded attempt to claim some measure of power, The Nightingale’s violence doesn’t seem to build upon its themes so much as repeat them: that life back then was hard, that colonialism is bad, that the people stripped of agency by various power structures and social hierarchies are the ones who suffer the most.
In the film’s more restrained moments, however, Kent finds occasional profundity through austere images of barren trees and charting the true depths of powerlessness against such an overpowering force as the English occupants. The Nightingale never diminishes the distance between Clare and Billy, who may sit in similar places at the bottom rung of their society yet have differing means of expressing their discontent tied to their disparate stations. Clare is able to “pass” in ways that Billy never will, receptive of sparse privileges he will never be offered. Although the two find common inspiration in birds, their aspirations only leave them staring into the distance at a place where they cannot follow. In the end, The Nightingale can be powerful as a dour exploration of futility and a conscious inversion of the story’s rape-revenge undertones, but its most effective themes are constantly fighting for space with Kent’s mistaken belief that holding our eyelids open and forcing us to peer at so much repetitive, obvious violence is the only way we can truly know atrocity.