Distress Down Under
28 November, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
Ailsing Franciosi in The Nightingale
Directed by Jennifer Kent
HOW a director decides to bump off characters speaks volumes for what type of film they are making.
Quentin Tarantino employs an immature, shoot ’em-and-shock-’em approach. Martin Scorsese likes a hitman with a handgun and a wisecrack before sending their enemy off to meet St Peter.
Ari Aster goes for a mixture of weirdness and gore.
The action beefcakes of the 80s – Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Seagal and the like – played a numbers game; while quite how the makers of the Keanu Reeves vehicle John Wick use onscreen deaths to move their story on is a mystery.
Director Jennifer Kent has made an extremely violent film in The Nightingale – with some scenes as distressing as any committed to celluloid for some time.
Her story has physical abuse woven through it – and it is used intelligently to consider the cheap value placed on people’s lives in the penal colonies established in Australia and Tasmania in the 1880s.
The state-sponsored, brutal treatment of not just convicts but the working classes, the aboriginal people whose lands they stole, and women is at the heart of Kent’s film.
Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict transported to Tasmania. She has served her time – but needs a letter confirming this from psychopathic, drunken Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) to be free.
He keeps her at his barracks with her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby), a blacksmith and general dogsbody, while she cooks, cleans, serves the drunken military and sings under duress in the soldiers’ mess.
From the start, Kent makes this shocking to view. The opening scenes set the tone – when Clare is raped and her family attacked, she vows revenge.
Lieutenant Hawkins is told by his superior he has not shown the ability to be awarded a lucrative captain’s position in a more civilised posting up north – but is told that if he goes to see the commanding officer in person, and within four days, he can petition for the promotion himself.
Off he sets with a motley bunch in tow through bush, rainforest and mountain, while and Clare enlists the help of aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to follow and seek bloody retribution.
The development of the relationship between Billy and Clare is a key factor. Another element is the sensational scenery and locations – the viewer is made to squelch through the tough conditions the leads face.
There are some minor holes in a straightforward plot – the behaviour of some characters appears unexplainable, but perhaps that is projecting modern values on times gone by.
Having plenty of “look-away-now” moments does not make a film. If it did, this grotesque rendition of life in Australia in the early 1800s would be off the scale. But such barbarity feels suitable and fitting.
A scary, enthralling watch.