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Not every run through the jungle reveals man’s heart of darkness, but The Nightingale does not confound that particular cliche. A particularly brutal serving of Tasmanian gothic, Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook tells its tale of violence and inhumanity in a surprisingly hushed cadence. Weaving themes of colonialism and class into the broad strokes of a won’t-stop-can’t-stop revenge potboiler, the film marks a step forward for the Australian director in terms of ambition and scope. In execution, however, the songbird hits a few false notes.
Our clock is set to 1825, when Tasmania went by the name Van Diemen’s Land, called itself a penal colony and ran as a multi-tiered slave state, and our focus is Clare, a young former convict played by Aisling Franciosi. Having served her sentence and expunged her record through indentured servitude, she is all set to begin anew with her newborn child and loving husband in tow. An Irishwoman whose sole crime might have been that she was born poor, Clare’s lowly station belies the fact that she might be the only soul in the place whose life flickers with joy. Those flickers are soon extinguished.
Kent might have gifted us with an enduring ghoul in her previous work, but the villain here is even more of a monster. The preening Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) begins as Clare’s master but soon becomes something far worse. When she and her husband beg him for their hard-won freedom, he sexually assaults Clare and has her baby and husband killed in a sequence whose matter-of-fact brutality remains a constant for the duration of the film.
Hawkins is also a prisoner of sorts, also serving an imperious superior, longing to improve his lot in life and falling short. Only when he falls short, he makes sure to take out his frustrations on everyone under his command. The dung rolls down a very long hill in The Nightingale, and the film pays uncommon attention to its every crag and ledge.
Soon, Hawkins and his men set out towards a larger base up north in the hopes of better posts, with the vengeful Clare quickly following them into the bush. Though the ensuing narrative plays out as a well-understood tangle between hunter and hunted, Kent is far more interested in exploring the colony’s unforgiving social hierarchy. All who get kicked end up kicking back, and the film painstakingly lays out where each and every person in this society fits in. Does a male child take importance over an adult woman? Does an Irish convict have fewer rights than an English one?
As for the island’s indigenous population, sadly one need not ask. Kent’s unsentimental brutality is most acute when depicting the various atrocities meted out to the land’s original residents. However, via Clare’s rural guide Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), the film also finds them an avenging angel. Ganambarr’s role expands as the story unfolds.
Billy and Clare are a ripe pair of targets, but the director has an odd way of downplaying whatever danger or terror they might feel. We never feel much urgency, and the narrative doesn’t so much build as land with a thunk from scene to scene. For all its violence, The Nightingale feels somewhat sedate.
Sometimes that approach pays off. In one instance, the two stumble upon a married couple freshly murdered, and the stillness of the bloody scene reminds us that in this world, quiet and calm only augur violence. But for the most part, the tone just offers monotony. Running nearly two-and-a-half hours, The Nightingale can be wearingly repetitive, making a point, making it again and making it once more for good measure, each time with the same sleepy whisper.
Still, it’s a noble effort. That resigned-to-violence consistency is a fascinating pitch that brings a new perspective to a well-worn genre. There are worse jungles in which to get lost.
• The Nightingale has premiered at the Venice film festival.
Source: The Guardian
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