15 minutes into “The Nightingale” involves a brutal murder, two rapes and an infant baby being thrown into the walls of a cabin. It is completely horrifying to endure. In fact its possibly the most unpleasant brutality I have seen depicted in a film in quite a while. The depiction of violence in this film is on the same level of Gaspar Noe, most notably “Irreversible”, and recently “Climax”. This is Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to her vastly superior “The Babadook”. However, unlike Noe, who’s films are also shocking and brutal, Kent leaves subtext, complexity, ambiguity and deep philosophies off the table.
Kent’s debut feature film “The Babadook” was overflown with a lot of potential, including eerie atmosphere that flourished with an impressive visual eye and rich eeriness. Her new film seems to be filled with trite social commentary with simplistic and overstated ideas on colonialism, patriarchy and of course a condemnation on the British empire abusing its power that we have already seen in countless other movies. The film lacks all subtly, and it wears that proudly on its sleeve. It is ultimately a generic revenge tragedy with a pedestrian script that’s shock will only really appease the NPR crowd that will walk away from the movie pretending to fill better after feeling educated about the horrors of oppression and government rule. For the rest, it will be a painful and ungainly two plus hour un-joyful ride that is goes way too over-the-top in its overbearing creative choices. How many more children must be shot and killed? How many rapes does Kent have to portray? How many more minorities and people of color must be hanged, degraded and beaten on? The answer is infinite, obviously Jennifer Kent is more interested in promoting her own Howard Zinn political soapbox than making an engaging or complex work.
The film is about a young Irish prisoner named Claire (Aisling Fraciosci) who is coerced into being a servant in return for a ticket back home. After a sinister British army lieutenant abuses his power and begins raping her, Claire’s husband stands up for her, only to end up dead along with their child by the lieutenant and his fellow comrades. Claire is even raped again in front of her husband. She is knocked unconscious after the rape and murders, Claire awakes with revenge on her mind, she heads into the Tasmanian wilderness and seeks the help from an Aboriginal guide named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). A majority of the film involves them getting in and out of situations from being spotted together by the supremacy that surrounds them. Fraciosci plays her character quite well, she brings the characters trauma to screen well, and you feel her torment. Sadly Kent doesn’t provide the character enough opportunities for more character depth.
That is mainly due to a flat script. You never truly believe the lieutenant and his comrades as real people. They come off more as one-dimensional caricatures that feel more like cardboard villains than effective villains. Their main purpose is only to rape, be violent, sexist and racist. They even rape an Aboriginal woman in her main land and kill every Aboriginal person that comes in their way. If Howard Zinn wrote a narrative fiction film about colonialism, this is what his colonial villains would be like. Its not to say that this stuff didn’t happen because it certainly did in history. However all of the rapes, deaths and beatings that is put into more than two hours of material is just endless and unnecessary, and all of the brutality ultimately takes away from what could have gone into more character depth and story. The film certainly argues against evil as it depicts evil in a brutal and harrowing way, however the doses it does this in are quite unnecessary. Overall this film comes off more like torture porn with an agenda rather than an engaging framework, avoid at all costs.