Compared to the explosion of revenge-fantasy gore near the end of Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood," served as dessert after a long, leisurely meal of beautiful, expensive nostalgia, the sensibility of a truly grown-up filmmaker such as Australia's Jennifer Kent has a way of showing Tarantino for what he is, at heart and behind the camera: a highly talented 56-year-old boy. Love it, like it, hate it, whatever, "Hollywood" exists on a different plane than Kent's latest, the grave and brutal period drama "The Nightingale."
Kent came to international attention five years ago with "The Babadook," a splendidly creepy horror film concerning a mother, her fatherless son and a storybook character of frightening capabilities. "The Nightingale" delves into a different, starker brand of horror: the horror of subjugation under colonialism.
Kent, who wrote and produced as well as directed, sets "The Nightingale" in 1825 Tasmania. (At the time the island off the southeast corner of Australia was known as Van Diemen's Land, a British penal colony.) The story belongs to Clare, a 21-year-old Irish convict, now married with an infant child. Clare remains the legal property of her master, Lt. Hawkins, an officer desperate to transfer to a better position in the north. He has sexually abused Clare for years, and has little intention to accommodate the future she is owed.
Her story is riven by horrific sexual violence and nearly unwatchable cruelty, and it suffuses the whole of this 136-minute picture. (The first half-hour is especially difficult.) "The Nightingale" arrives with a legitimate warning from its U.S. distributor, IFC Films, noting the film's "potentially triggering acts of sexual violence toward women, violence toward children, and violence motivated by racism." What happens to Clare and her family early on in "The Nightingale" sets the rest of it in motion, as Clare and an Aboriginal tracker, Billy, hunt down Hawkins and his soldiers on a perilous trek northward.
Does Kent exploit her protagonist's suffering for the sake of her drama? In its Australian premiere, and all along the international film festival circuit, "The Nightingale" has provoked its share of walkouts and post-screening arguments. The worst of what Kent depicts is truly awful to witness. Yet I never felt any of it was melodrama for melodrama's sake, or a cheap set-up to stoke our bloodlust. Kent unblinkingly focuses on the ravages of British colonial rule, but she's filmmaker and screenwriter enough to present a plausible range of human specimens among Hawkins' ranks, for example. (The fate of the youngest soldier, played by pre-teen Charlie Shotwell, is especially heartbreaking.)
Kent has assembled a remarkable cast, beginning and ending with the Italian-Irish actress Aisling Franciosi as Clare. Franciosi, whose character is nicknamed the nightingale for her singing voice, worked with director Kent for an unusually lengthy 10-week rehearsal period prior to filming. Every close-up, each new, dread-filled encounter with convicts, officers, indigenous residents run off their own land, reveals to the audience a little more of Clare's psyche. Despite the ordeal of her existence, in every sense of the word the character, thanks to the performance, is truly alive. The landscapes and forests, captured so well by cinematographer Radek Ladczuk, evoke what William Butler Yeats once termed "a terrible beauty," writing of a different time and place, though a related colonialist nightmare.
As Billy, Clare's guide, Baykali Ganambar brings great soul and presence to "The Nightingale," while Sam Claflin's Hawkins near-miraculously transcends the sum of the character's venalities. The ringer among Kent's collaborators, editor Simon Njoo, never cuts when you fully expect a cut, either in dialogue-driven exchanges or purely visual sequences.
"The Nightingale" can't quite maintain its pace and dread-filled suspense to the end. A climactic confrontation between Clare and Hawkins feels like wish fulfillment, not authentic, urgent reality, and it's stiffly staged. There are times when Kent bears down, hard, on what Clare must survive in order to see if there's anything better waiting for her, outside her own circle of Tasmanian hell. Yet even that feels like an honorable filmmaking decision, handled just so. With "The Babadook" and now "The Nightingale," Kent joins the ranks of a few dozen precious filmmakers able to transport us somewhere awful and beautiful, challenging us every step of the way.
MPAA rating: R (for strong violent and disturbing content including rape, language throughout and brief sexuality)
Running time: 2:16