'The Nightingale' film review: 'Babadook' director's brutal revenge flick dares audiences not to walk out
Anyone who can make it through the visceral brutality of the first act of "The Nightingale" (opening in select cities Aug. 30) must then endure a gripping but emotionally punishing rebuke of colonialism dressed up as a revenge thriller.
In short: Revenge-obsessed Clare (Aisling Franciosi) enlists Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) as she pursues British officer Lt. Hawkins (Sam Claflin) through the Tasmanian brush in the early 1800s.
Be warned: the first act's closing scene features a sickening and heinous acts of violence that can only be described as most disturbing in magnitude. Please do not read this as hyperbole or an attempt to oversell a film's content: this is a legitimate warning to anyone who is easily triggered by acts of violence ... maybe see another film. Just save yourself the trouble of standing in line at concessions, getting popcorn, watching one of the most distressing sequences of any film in 2019, leaving the theater and asking for a refund. At this point, anyone thinking about watching this film has been fairly warned.
Just know that the rest of the film never reaches the emotional flashpoint of "that" first act scene - but that is not to say "Nightingale" is any less harrowing or emotionally heartbreaking. While the barbaric first act violence fuels Clare's personal revenge arc, the rest of the film is a wider take on the inescapable and inevitable ruin inflicted by colonialism. Even as the film opens, Clare is already a prisoner toiling under British rule - and it's only when she ventures from her penal colony and out into the Tasmanian wilderness when she's exposed to the greater social destruction and damage left in the wake of the British Empire. What the British solders did to Clare is no different than what they have done to the Aboriginals -- and this is the shared commonality between the Irish convict Clare and orphaned Aboriginal tracker Billy.
While "Nightingale" explores its tragic themes, from a strictly plot perspective, the story clunkily get through the third act. An all-engrossing intensity fills the bulk of the story, wherein Clare and Billy doggedly chase Lt. Hawkins and his small band of men through the brush. Clare has a focused goal, however she and Billy are hopelessly outnumbered and surrounded by the dangerous wilderness. But in the third act, the "Nightingale" loses dramatic intensity -- specifically "will Clare and Billy catch Hawkins before he reaches his goal?" -- when that question just comes to a relatively anti-climatic resolution. While the very final scene itself is beautiful, the lead up to it and the final confrontation between the main characters is ... underwhelming. The entire first act is underscored by foreboding - a dread of what will happen to Clare - whereas the third act hastily wraps up its dangling plot points.
Final verdict: Writer-director Jennifer Kent gets credit for hiding a thoughtful mediation on the darkness of colonialism under the guise of a period revenge drama. Despite the film's uneven emotional energy, "The Nightingale" is a powerful condemnation of colonial oppression that leaves bruising impression that lingers.
"The Nightingale" screened during the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival and opens in additional select cities Aug. 30. This period thriller has a running time of 136 minutes and is rated R for strong violent and disturbing content including rape, language throughout, and brief sexuality.