Though set in a real place and occurring within a historically accurate framework, “The Nightingale” often feels like a journey through Hell itself.
It’s that punishing. That bleak. That horrific. That haunting.
It’s also a powerful, gripping, masterfully filmed tale with a heroine who endures the most unspeakable suffering imaginable but somehow manages — again and again and AGAIN — to keep going, to push forward, to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds in her quest to seek justice and find some measure of peace.
Five years after making a sensational splash with the brilliant horror story “The Babadook,” writer-director Jennifer Kent solidifies her standing as a unique and original voice with a gift for stunning visuals and a knack for holding our attention, even when developments occur at an almost maddeningly deliberate pace.
It’s those slower, quiet moments that make it all the more startling when we’re suddenly hit with a jarring punch to the senses.
“The Nightingale” is set during the colonization of Australia in 1825, specifically on the island of Van Diemen’s Land (now known as Tasmania), which the British had turned in a penal colony.
In one of the best performances of the year, Aisling Franciosi plays a young Irish woman named Clare who is serving a seven-year sentence on the island, under the rule of the sadistic British officer Hawkins (Sam Claflin), whose petulant manner, constant complaining and almost casual cruelty make him all that more despicable. (He’s like that loathsome and psychotic worm of a prison guard in “The Green Mile” — but even worse.)
Within the first half-hour of the 136-minute film, Hawkins and his men rape Clare and murder her husband and infant and leave Clare for dead.
It’s a deeply disturbing scene, difficult to watch, impossible to forget. So intense as to prompt dozens of people to walk out of a June screening at the Sydney Film Festival.
One can understand such visceral reactions. But there’s nothing even remotely exploitative or gratuitous about the depiction of these horrifying acts. In raw and challenging and unblinking fashion, director Kent makes us feel as if we’re invisible, powerless witnesses, experiencing this nightmare alongside Clare.
Fiercely determined to find Hawkins and gain her revenge, Clare hires an Aboriginal man named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) as a tracker — only because she has no other options.
They are deeply distrustful of one another. The only thing they have in common, at least initially, is their mutual hatred for the British military.
Franciosi and Ganambarr (a non-professional actor) are wonderful together as Clare and Billy embark on a harrowing journey that could end very badly for either or both of them.
We know they will squabble and bicker and lash out at one another along the way. They might even decide to go their separate ways at some point.
But all they really have is each other.
Once in a great while, “The Nightingale” reminds us that even in the most hopeless and unforgiving times, some people retain their humanity, e.g., a scene in which an elderly couple perform a simple act of kindness.
And while we realize these glimpses of light are inevitably ephemeral in a world dominated by so much darkness, and we know nothing Clare does can erase the nightmares of the past, “The Nightingale” somehow finds a path to a place where we remain shaken by what we’ve seen — but also greatly admiring the courage and resilience of a woman who was victimized again and again, yet refused to allow her entire life to be defined by victimhood.