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  Nightingale, The She Who Must Be Avenged
Year: 2018
Director: Jennifer Kent
Stars: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie, Charlie Shotwell, Michael Sheasby, Matthew Underwood, Magnolia Maymuru, Christopher Stollery, Nathaniel Dean, Claire Jones, Luke Carroll, Dallas Mugarra
Genre: Drama, Thriller, HistoricalBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: Tasmania in the early nineteenth century, and the indigenous population have been invaded by British colonists who dominate them with extreme brutality, and the fact they are using the Australian continent as a prison camp does not improve their lot one bit. One such prisoner, recently freed to become a housemaid for the well-off officers there, is Clare (Aisling Franciosi) who tonight has been ordered to sing for the soldiers for their entertainment. This she does before resuming her duties as a servant, but she has caught the eye of Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) who orders her back to his quarters for a chat. But he wants more than that, and assaults her...

Writer and director Jennifer Kent must have had the world at her feet, cinematically, after her horror film The Babadook was such a success internationally, but she resisted the temptation to descend into the Hollywood machine because she wanted to make this, a deliberately harrowing take on her native Australia's dreadful colonial past. This is not the most popular of subjects, especially in Oz, since it reminded everyone of how their nation was founded and it was not pretty, but she ploughed ahead regardless, with the result this was not as popular as her smaller-scale, if no less ambitious, previous effort, not least because of the degree of rape in it, which turned potential audiences off.

Not that the sexual abuse occurred all the way through, but Kent was not about to soft-pedal the trauma that such incidents cause in the victims, and guided the rest of her storyline as a way of coping with the ultimate insult to a person short of actually murdering them. Clare had it even worse: in a second assault, her husband is made to watch while her baby screams in the corner; when the husband tries to stop this, he is shot dead, and even more ghastly, the infant is killed to prevent its crying. With all that happening within the space of mere minutes, it is no wonder the girl ends up so damaged psychologically - and that this sets in motion her plans for bloody revenge.

The Nightingale (the title refers to the protagonist, for her singing voice) is on Clare's side all the way, understandably so, but she is not the only wronged character, indeed, we are well aware there is an entire race of people who have been literally and figuratively raped, which brings in the Billy the tracker (Baykali Ganambarr) Clare uses to follow Hawkins when he rushes off on an excursion to reach Launceston and a promotion there. She means to murder the three men who violated her and killed the others in her family, but we are in no doubt the odds are against her, no matter how righteously ferocious she can get; yet all the way through we are needled with the point that what she has experienced has been a daily occurrence for decades in the Aborigine population, so who should be angrier, Clare or Billy?

Seeing as how victimhood is not a competition, it was a slight misstep for the film to be constantly weighing up the dreadful treatment of these two, given they both were justified in their huge grievances in a world that favours the bullies over the bullied. The best they can hope for is not, the film concludes, more violence, since that is not as satisfying as the wronged might believe, more exposing the evildoers and waiting until they inevitably face their reckoning - it was interesting that Kent was convinced this would happen, whether it took days or centuries, but if the latter, it's a bit late. Another drawback, if it was a drawback, was the film's resemblance to the violent Westerns of the nineteen-seventies, you know, the sort of thing that audiences rejected and sabotaged the genre: there was a lot of Soldier Blue and its cartoonish exploitation movie cum anger at colonialism in The Nightingale. Quite how you depicted the horrors without falling into the trash trap is an issue Kent tried to cope with by making her work as long as possible, all the better for the audience to contemplate what they were watching, which kind of succeeded, but not quite. Music by Jed Kurzel.

[THE NIGHTINGALE is in UK and Irish cinemas now.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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