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Nightingale, The (2019)
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by Jay Seaver

"Keenly honed rage lifts it above the usual revenge thriller."
5 stars

The nine-screen multiplex where I saw "The Nightingale" had a sign warning potential customers about the violence by the box office, and I spent a few moments wondering why it was the sole film to get this treatment recently. It's not a bad thing for the theater to have done that - it's a harsh film that could certainly dredge up traumatic experiences - it's curiosity at the application. Writer/director Jennifer Kent appears to have crossed a line that others tend to shy away from, but I don't know that I'd have it otherwise.

What's now called Tasmania was "Van Diemen's Land" in 1820, and Clare Carrol (Aisling Franciosi) is one of a number who arrived as convicts. By rights, she and her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) should be free, but she's got a pretty enough face and voice that Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) hasn't put the paperwork in, and Irish convicts don't have any recourse, no matter what their "sponsors" do. Aidan thinks they should leave anyway, but the timing is terrible, as Hawkins has just been told he will not be recommended for a promotion and opts to go to the city to demand it, stopping at the Carrol shed to vent his frustration with violence that will leave Clare hell-bent on revenge, offering everything she has to Aboriginal guide Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) if he'll help her overtake Hawkins on the trail.

Many might start a movie like this by depicting some sort of idyll or peaceful equilibrium, but Kent is having none of that; for all that Clare and Aidan clearly love each other and their infant daughter, there's hate and intolerance at every level of society, with even the other young servants often begrudging any accommodation made for the baby or acting like Clare is putting on airs when she's made to perform for the garrison like it's her idea. She pointedly has Hawkins's sergeant Ruse (Damon Herriman) belittle the men under his command as "girls" and doesn't back off the contempt Clare has for Billy even if she'll need his expertise. There are people up the ladder who clearly find this distasteful, but are loath to do much about it and challenge the order that has them where they are.

Kent is not willing to let the audience look away, though, and one way she forces the issue is by having cinematographer Radek Ladczuk frame the movie in a tight Academy-ratio box. Though there may be a lovely Australian vista in the corner, there is little room for the eye to wander; just enough color has been bled out to keep it from being pretty, with the violence and its results dead-center, large enough that there's little negative space to which a viewer can escape. It's a technique one notices the first time that the audience sees Clare raped, and Kent keeps Aisling Franciosi's face in the center of the screen, just enough visible around it to remind the audience what is happening, but the focus always on what is happening to Clare, from the initial pain and rage to how she seems to almost leave her body as it goes on.

That one must specify the first rape is a sign of how much violence there is in this movie, but that violence is meticulously utilized. Kent doesn't just use Clare's attack to give her a reason to seek revenge, but also drives home to the viewer just how pervasive the threat of sexual assault or racially-motivated murder is. It's casual and unquestioned, and even when the tables are turned, it never becomes fun, even if the moments building to a confrontation are tense and suspenseful: Kent and editor Simon Njoo cut what could be a cathartic moment so that horror overwhelms any sense of victory, with far more shame than pride on the other end.

All of this means Clare is put through a hell of a lot, but Aisling Franciosi is up for it. She captures how Clare is determined and focused in her pursuit but often hot-headed in the moment, and though the story needs her to be a lot of things - from the start, one can see a bit of the young Irish hellraiser happy to thumb her nose at the English alongside the mother looking for stability, before every trauma starts knocking her about - there's always a core identity that lets her be powerfully raw without being melodramatic. She could make Baykli Ganambarr look kind of bland in comparison, but he's got a great handle on Billy and which amounts of well-earned resentment and anger at white-person foolishness he can let overcome the well-internalized need to tread carefully. The villains are, to an extent, variations on the same sort of male predator - one may be openly crude, one vicious when he doesn't have to put up a good front, and one seemingly nice and uncomfortable until it's time to actually make a stand.

The film has a tendency to stretch on a bit toward the end, but when looked at in terms of learning how to grieve, that seems fitting - Clare's racing off before a proper funeral toward the start leaves her in turmoil compared to a later decision to pause, for instance, needs a bit of room to breathe, as do later ruminations on how European and Aboriginal societies deal with what would later be called psychopaths in their midst. It's a harsh movie, but also tense and well-observed, a tale of revenge that isn't going to settle for either visceral thrills or the usual platitudes.

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originally posted: 08/21/19 02:30:34
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2019 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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  02-Aug-2019 (R)
  DVD: 04-Feb-2020


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