Starring: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr
Director: Jennifer Kent
Running Time: 136 mins
The Nightingale is an Australian film about a young woman in colonial-era Australia who sets out on a quest for revenge against the imperial soldiers who killed her family.
From Jennifer Kent, director of the highly-acclaimed horror-drama The Babadook, comes something very different, and for me, a real step up. Building on her unique and unrelenting style of dark despair, Kent turns what is at heart a simple revenge thriller into something moving, exhilarating and at times genuinely heart-wrenching. With a powerhouse lead performance from Aisling Franciosi and a brilliantly disgusting villainous turn from Sam Claflin, The Nightingale is a film that really gets under your skin, and makes for a rather hard-hitting watch as a result.
Running at over 130 minutes long and taking place over an enormous landscape, there’s certainly a lot to say about The Nightingale, but if there’s one thing you must know about the film: it’s that it’s absolutely not for the faint-hearted. While The Babadook saw Kent take emotional distress to incredibly dark depths, The Nightingale mirrors that emotional turmoil, but takes things to another level with graphic violence, an angry sense of vengeance, and an almost breathless chase across an unforgiving landscape filled with risks.
As a result, The Nightingale really hits home not only with its desperately dark emotional core, but also as a sweeping and devastating cross-country journey, following a young woman hell-bent on revenge, and the presence of ruthless and morally bankrupt colonialists trying to stop her at every turn.
It may be a long film, and it may not seem to run at the fastest pace, but the sheer intensity and sense of peril makes this film play out like a breathless thriller, and once the chase across the rugged Australian landscape gets underway, you’ll be hard pressed to find a moment to look away.
So, to an extent, The Nightingale has all the qualities of a great adventure, only made all the more striking by its immensely dark emotion, but it’s the step up from the twisted, claustrophobic thriller that was The Babadook to a sweeping and exhilarating epic that really makes The Nightingale so memorable, and Kent’s direction so impressive.
Aisling Franciosi is spectacular in the lead role. With a little bit of childlike innocence that makes her character’s descent into a frenzy of vengeance all the more powerful, she powers through the film in exhilarating fashion, taking you on this breathless ride with her, and with a combination of both stunning emotional resonance and physical capabilities, she owns the screen at every moment, and is more than impressive for every one of the film’s 136 minutes.
In the role as the villain of the story, Sam Claflin puts in a brilliantly revolting performance as a selfish, morally bankrupt colonial officer who steps over everyone in his path for his own gain. By far the best turn of his career so far, Claflin is disgusting at every moment he appears on screen, and as he portrays an unrelenting lack of morals or repentance for his many crimes, it proves to be something that really gets under your skin – a fantastic turn that stands as one of the most memorable and effective villainous performance in quite a while.
And finally, as Aisling Franciosi embarks on a non-stop quest for revenge across the country, she is joined by Baykali Ganambarr, who plays an indigenous Australian forcefully hired to be her guide through the landscape. Alongside Franciosi and Claflin, Ganambarr is yet another revelation, giving an intelligent, emotional and often even funny performance in a smaller role, embodying the film’s core message about the ruthless destruction of the Aboriginal culture and homeland by the British colonisation.
Thanks to Ganambarr’s charisma and emotional depth, that theme is all the more powerful throughout, and alongside the dark excitement of the desperate chase across the country, Jennifer Kent injects a saddening depiction of the merciless annihilation of an entire culture, and as Franciosi encounters obstacles to her own quest for revenge, Ganambarr is forced to contend with the ever-present threat of being found by bloodthirsty colonialist soldiers.
It’s an ingenious theme that makes The Nightingale more than just a great thriller, bringing tender and heartbreaking emotional depth to the table, made all the more striking by Jennifer Kent’s fantastic direction, and three exhilarating lead performances, which is why I’m giving this film an 8.1 overall.