“Grim” would be too gentle a word to describe what happens in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale. Set in 1825, the film opens by introducing us to Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irishwoman who’s been deported to a British penal colony in Tasmania. Not long after we first meet her, she’s raped by her supervisor, an abusive British lieutenant named Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Subsequently, Hawkins and a few of his cronies gang rape her, and she’s made to watch as they also murder her husband and baby.
As horrific as all of that already sounds, The Nightingale doesn’t get any lighter from there. After destroying Clare’s life, an unrepentant Hawkins leaves the penal colony and travels north to Launceston, where he hopes to be promoted to captain. Left to her own devices, a vengeful Clare embarks on a grueling, days-long foot journey to hunt Hawkins down and kill him. To help her navigate the Tasmanian wilderness, moreover, she hires Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal tracker whose male family members were slaughtered by the British when he was a mere child.
In terms of its worldview, The Nightingale will remind you a lot of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Just as Iñárritu did with the American West, Kent depicts Tasmania as a no man’s land, an impersonal environment that provides the backdrop for unremitting acts of human brutality. (Furthermore, as it was with Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in The Revenant, I can’t think of a single scene in The Nightingale where Billy and Clare seem happy.)
In The Revenant, this sort of relentlessly bleak approach gave the film an appearance of “seriousness” that belied its repetitiveness and unoriginality. While you could potentially say something similar of The Nightingale, I’d argue that Kent’s unsparing pessimism has more of a purpose than Iñárritu’s did in The Revenant. In creating such a dark depiction of 19th-century Australia, Kent corrects the romanticized, whitewashed depictions of British imperialism that we often find in traditional histories of the era. The end result may not be a particularly pleasant watch – but if nothing else, it’s an earnest attempt to rewrite history from the perspective of marginalized groups rather than that of white men.
This isn’t to say that every part of Kent’s rewriting of history works. Specifically, it stumbles somewhat in its depiction of Billy. Kent undeniably approaches him with good intentions, seeking to illustrate the ways in which he and other Aborigines were abused by white Europeans. But her portrayal of Billy still carries a slight air of exoticism. As Billy and Clare become closer and form a sort of friendship, the film occasionally slips into a condescending, “he’s human, too” form of sentimentalism that’s characterized many films about race relations (e.g. The Defiant Ones, Dances with Wolves) in the past.
All that said, however, the story at The Nightingale’s core – a woman seeks to become something greater than a sex object – is powerful and well-told. Franciosi gives a steely performance, making her character’s abrupt transformation from diffident prisoner to dogged killer quite believable. And despite the controversy surrounding them, the film’s rape scenes are actually very well-designed, in that they showcase the brutality of sexual violence without indirectly glorifying or eroticizing said violence (à la Straw Dogs). Watching The Nightingale may be painful in the moment, but when it’s all over, you’ll leave the theater feeling moved – and perhaps empowered as well.