Movie Review: The Nightingale (SIFF 2019)

I typically don't do this, but because it happens often and brutally enough in the movie, I want to issue a trigger warning for scenes of rape.

The Nightingale is an Australian film about an Irish woman, Clare, who was sent to Australia to serve out her prison sentence. The local Lieutenant of the military unit is cruel and refuses to let her go despite time served. Her husband, Aiden, intervenes, but when he does, the Lieutenant takes a few men to teach him a lesson as he rapes Clare in front of him, orders her baby killed and Aiden shot before hitting Clare and leaving her for dead. Clare sets out on a mission of revenge and employs an Aboriginal guide, who has great traumas of his own, to help her find and catch the men. The film stars Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Sam Claflin, and Damon Herriman. It's written and directed by Jennifer Kent.

I want to start with the scenes of rape. As I mention above, there are several, but what makes them far different than what is typically seen in a film that includes them is the perspective. Often these scenes take place in the male gaze with a wide shot of the act, almost as if to perceive the violence of it as arousing. In these attempts we're far removed from the intimacy and can disconnect from it to see the obvious villainy. Yet, in The Nightingale, Jennifer Kent reveals the utilitarian aspect, the punishment. It's not an intimate moment, it is violence, it is pain, and there is nothing sexy or disconnected about it, we're there and we have to see the pain caused by cruel men. We never see the hint of skin, but only the pain and intense discomfort on the woman's face and the determination and anger on the man's.

Kent reveals a lot in the faces of her characters. Many of her shots are of faces looking straight into ours. She focuses on the fact that faces can tell us more than words. A face can tell you everything you need to know about a person's state of mind. These actors are so good at giving us those emotional moments and tense stand offs between characters at odds. It shows Kent's evolving palette of storytelling, but there are great moments that remind us where she started as well.

Jennifer Kent's breakout, The Babadook, was a horror film and its DNA is still very present throughout The Nightingale. She has these fantastical dream sequences where Clare is haunted by the voice of her husband and the cries of her baby. The dreams start off slow, but as she fails to sleep and as she fails to eat, the dreams dip farther and farther into nightmares. She sees her attackers, she sees the horrors of the road and she sees the horror she has committed in these dreams. These sequences have all of the fright of the jump scares of Kent's previous work and it fits well within the story she's telling here and well within the trauma of her characters.

Clare and her Aboriginal guide Billy are at odds at the beginning of their relationship because of the racial bias each one has had ingrained in them by the actions and words of the white men in power. As they journey, they share their traumas, compare their traumas, and commiserate on their traumas. They begin to understand each other, to protect each other, and find ways to interact on a deeply human level. While films like this can often slip into a certain dynamic of one character exerting their privilege over another in order to save them, here neither character has the upper hand, which is what unites them in common cause against their enemies and builds their relationship on mutual respect.

The Nightingale is less a film about brutality and revenge, but more about the idea that humanity's differences can be overcome once we realize that love is the most powerful agent of change in the universe. Love can change hearts and minds, it can bring someone back from the depths, and encourage peaceful coexistence. The love that develops between Billy and Clare is not the primitive carnal love, but that deep intellectual love of a whole person who has understood someone on a level no one else could. It makes this film and its ending beautiful.

I know this film won't be for everyone and even if you see it, you may not see the depths that I see and only see the brutal surface. That's fine. Films tend to find us where we are and can pull us in or push us away. The Nightingale is likely a film that will push many away, but if you let it in, you will see what is there is saying something important.

Because this was a screening for the Seattle International Film Festival, you won't be able to see this film right away. If you're feeling intrepid you may see it at its other festival showing this Thursday May 23rd, at 9:30PM or you may wait until its theatrical release date of August 2nd.

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