“THE NIGHTINGALE”: Death Down Under

“THE NIGHTINGALE” My rating: B (Opens Aug. 23 at the Screenland Armour) 136 minutes | MPAA rating: R
Published August 22, 2019 by Robert W. Butler at Butler’s Cinema Scene

In the first 20 minutes of “The Nightingale” we witness three brutal rapes and two murders (one of the victims is an infant hurled against a wall).

Writer/director Jennifer Kent is just getting started.

Kent burst upon the world cinema scene in 2014 with “The Babadook,” one of the most effective psychological horror stories of recent years.  “The Nightingale” is every bit as nightmarish, except that it relies on nothing more than human nature and history for its terror.

Kent’s willingness to drive “The Nightingale” into unsettling and abhorrent behavior has made the film a lightning rod for controversy. If a man had directed this material it would probably be decried as exploitative and sexist. Because she’s a woman and because of her track record, Kent deserves a chance to make her case.

Does she ever.

Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is a young Irish woman who has spent the last several years in an Australian penal colony for the crime of theft. In that time (we’re talking the early 19th century) she has married a fellow transport (Michael Sheasby) and given birth.  The term of her involuntary servitude has expired, but Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), in whose frontier household she serves, has refused to give her the papers that will make her a free woman.

Hawkins claims to treasure Clare’s singing voice — he calls her his “Nightingale” — but his real reasons are more carnal.

In short order Clare loses everything she values.  Leaving behind several ghastly crimes, Hawkins and his equally venal sergeant, Ruse (Damon Herriman), initiate a trek through the wilderness to plead their case for promotion at military headquarters.

Clare, bent on revenge, coerces the aborigine Billy (Baykal Ganambarr) to guide her in pursuit.

Billy, who as a boy witnessed the slaughter of his entire tribe, has nothing but contempt for the continent’s new white masters. But he’s too beaten down (“You know what it’s like to have white fella steal everything you have?”) to let his rage run free.  Ironically, on this mission of death he’s the one arguing for mercy and caution.

The Nightingale
Photo by Matt Nettheim/IFC Films

Kent’s screenplay follows two parallel tracks. In one, Billy and Clare slowly move from distrust and loathing to something like love (although not the sappy romantic love one might expect).

“I’m paying you to protect me,” Clare admonishes Billy over a gun barrel.

“No you’re not,” he answers. “I’m just showing you the way.”

Before it’s over they’ll have each other’s backs as they encounter convict chain gangs, racist settlers, raging rivers and other obstacles.

Meanwhile Hawkins, Ruse and a handful of fellow miscreants are marauding their way through the countryside in a winceworthy display of malignant manhood. This part of the film resembles nothing so much as Cormac McCarthy’s cult novel  Blood Meridian, in which a band of “explorers” and Indian fighters rape, murder and pillage their way across 1830s Texas.

All of this plays out against a background of race war…the British colonists are bent on genocide and a handful of aborigine warriors are fighting back.

“The Nightingale” is no intellectual exercise. It’s dirty and bloody, irate and elemental. This is a world of intimidating physical beauty and of roiling human emotions, a place where the thin veneer of civilization has been rubbed away and lust, grief and madness have taken its place.

You may want to look away, but such is Kent’s skill that you don’t.

| Robert W. Butler

Read the original review and more reviews at Butler’s Cinema Scene

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Robert W. Butler for 41 years reviewed films for the Kansas City Star. In May 2011 he was downsized.

He couldn’t take the hint.

OKAY, so here’s the deal. I write mostly about movies. One good thing about no longer writing for the paper is that I’m free to ignore the big dumb Hollywood turkeys that don’t interest me. So don’t expect every blessed release to be written about here. Many films aren’t worth the effort. Besides, at my age it’s not the $8. It’s the two hours.

UPDATE: OCTOBER, 2014: Well, here’s an interesting twist. The Star wants me back as a freelance film reviewer!!! Apparently enough time has passed that they cannot be accused of firing me so that they can rehire me at a fraction of my original pay (I gather the federal government frowns upon that practice.) So from now on I will probably be reviewing a movie a week for the newspaper.