Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale may just be the hardest film of the year to watch. It is brutal and intense, devastating and unflinching. It is also essential, and features perhaps one of the best performances of the year from Aisling Franciosi (“Game of Thrones”). She stars as Clare, a woman wronged who is on the warpath for revenge—though that wildly oversimplifies what Kent has accomplished here: a bold, fiery statement on colonialism, patriarchy, racism, classism…pick your -ism, really.
A native of Australia, Kent sets The Nightingale in Tasmania in 1825, when the British were in full imperialization mode and the land was more prisoners’ colony than settled community. Clare is there, toiling away on a farm day-in, day-out and dreaming of a better future for her and her family. The British soldiers are also there, and Lieutenant Hawkins (a devastatingly evil Sam Claflin) leads his regimen with an iron fist, eager to prove to his superiors he’s qualified for a promotion. How Clare and Hawkins come to cross paths is the film’s first challenge to its audience, as the violent acts that occur are almost too much to bear (truth be told, I watched these moments from between my fingers, hand over eyes). In less talented hands, these brutal scenes would feel gratuitous, almost unfair making us watch them. Yet Kent has her reasons, and as the film unfolds it becomes clear that had we not witnessed her victimization, we could not fully understand the journey ahead of her.
The journey, in fact, is what gets most of the film’s attention (a healthy two hours, sixteen minute run-time never feels excessive), as Clare sets out after the men who committed these crimes with the resolve of…well, of a woman scorned. To help her track them (and to keep her safe in the untamed backcountry), she hires on Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an actual native of this land who, like all his people, has been pushed out of his surroundings and forced to adapt to the invading Western forces. There’s an inherent mutual distrust between Clare and Billy, as racism runs deep on the part of the colonizers, and an understandable bitterness and skepticism pervades all of Billy’s interactions with them. Kent thus sets up an undeniably layered dynamic, as certainly Clare is of an oppressed, victimized class, yet she still sees herself as superior to Billy.
Perhaps the most impressive part of The Nightingale, of which there are many to choose, is Kent’s ability to keep the film’s intensity on high throughout without ever exhausting our attention or investment. Cliched as it may be, there’s an actual edge-of-your-seat factor at work here, as it’s impossible to look away from this damaged soul and her unwavering drive to, at least in her mind, right the wrongs against her. Of course from our vantage point, her mission is questionable at best, another angle Kent asks us to evaluate as we go; when you’ve been so unforgivably wronged, can it ever be made right? Is revenge ever the answer, even in a world as black and white as the one Clare lives in? Throughout, we see Clare, Hawkins, Billy and others make snap decisions with often brutal consequences, a sort of survival-of-the-fittest reality that never gets easier to stomach. There’s no giving in here, no sympathy for the viewer.
And though that means that when the credits role you’ll find yourself releasing the breath you didn’t realize you’d been holding, it also means you’ve just experienced something truly exceptional, an unforgettable film and an incomparable achievement.