The Nightingale isn’t an easy watch.
It’s not supposed to be. This is a spare, brutal portrait of the realities of Australian colonialism: murder, genocide and – most notoriously, if its coverage is anything to go by – rape. Jennifer Kent pulls no punches, with harsh natural lighting and a tight Academy ratio focusing on the trauma, rather than the beauty, of 1820s Australia.
The story centres on Clare (Aisling Franciosi) and Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), each victims of the colonialist English troops led by the sociopathic Hawkins (Sam Clafin). After Clare loses everything at Hawkins’ hands, she recruits Billy as tracker to stalk Hawkins and his men through the bush on the perilous track to Launceston, as the film assumes the shape of a familiar rape-revenge narrative.
That shape is what keeps The Nightingale from true excellence; as its interest shifts from Clare to Billy (and, implicitly, Indigenous suffering) in its back half, it suffers from imposing a conventional Western narrative on Aboriginal history (expanded upon in this review). There are stunning moments – as when a blood-splattered Clare looks up to the tranquillity of the outback and we understand the bedrock of violence beneath our country – but it falls short of excellence.