“The Nightingale” is set in early 19th century Australia. Our protagonist, Clare, ( Aisling Franciosi ) is a Irish convict who is trying to get released from a penal colony where she lives with her loving husband , Aiden, ( Michael Sheasby ) and three-month-old daughter. The British officer in charge ( Sam Claflin) rapes her in front of her husband, shoots him, and tells his sergeant to silence the child. When the underling can’t, he throws the baby against a wall. Clare somehow survives the rifle butt to her head, swaddles her dead child and carries her through the colony. Clare calls on friends to place the baby in her father’s arms and bury both under a designated tree. Then, Clare is off to seek revenge.
Brutal, yes. But brutality in director and screenwriter Jennifer Kent’s hand is different from the Quentin Tarantino variety. Violence in “The Nightingale” is emotional. It is not violence for violence’s sake, nor is it being made fun of. Unlike a pornography expunger collecting his own cache of filth, Kent documents historical, sadistic viciousness rather than make fun of a culture that seems to vicariously enjoy viewing it.
On Clare’s revenge quest, vivid dream sequences swirl around her. Through crazed and in shock , she does take her friend’s advice and hires a black tracker, Billy, ( Baykali Ganambarr) to lead the way through the aboriginal forrest. The dripping fern and rain sounds are glorious, the mud and leeches less so. The high river, the lack of food and its procurement add adventurous scenes while bonding Billy and Claire as two oppressed souls: blackbird and nightingale.
Billy calls himself ” Blackbird” and he tells us that he doesn’t wish to be a white devil. The English have killed off most of his tribe. Billy is astounded by Claire’s own violence. When she stabs and pummels the ensign who killed her daughter, Billy turns his back on her. ” What did he do to you to turn you into a mad devil? ” More dream sequences follow and Billy stays. In one sweet scene, he offers a recipe for paste to dry-up Claire’s painfully milk-full breasts. ” None of your hocus-pokus on me” is her initial retort, but soon smokey ceremonies prove Billy’s ancient wisdom.
Though much of the film consists of 1700 style revenge, the themes of racism, colonial power, and freedom ring true. Some normal acts of kindness show when an elderly couple see Claire dazed and seemingly alone on the road. ” You look a fright. Come for a wash and a feed” , the man says. He later asks Billy to get up from the floor and eat at the table with them. Billy’s appreciation and tearful rage of ” This is my country” is understated acting at its best.
Expect raw emotional experience, and the most callous British officer ever depicted.