I saw the trailer for this movie and was super excited right away, then I missed in in theatres and forgot all about it. Luckily Shudder recently got it and I enjoyed it a lot. In Covid times, there is a lot to be said for a story that takes you out of the present. Is it a horror film? Not really, but it speaks to the history of exploitation films in a really interesting way. I can recommend it on the whole, but not as a horror flick.
Director Jennifer Kent came to everyone’s attention with The Babadook (2014), so I feel like that saw to The Nightingale‘s packaging as another horror film. Really, it’s more of a period drama but a good one at that; it’s even based on a book. It tells with no glamour but great beauty the story of a penal colony in Tasmania in 1825 . Spoilers ahead.
In a strange way, this narrative is a staple of exploitation films: a rape-revenge story. But unlike its predecessors, the film isn’t shot in a way to titillate. During the rape, the camera focuses on her face, you see little of her body, and the scene is not protracted. The violence towards her attackers, on the other hand, is graphic; bringing it closer to the tropes of rape-revenge. The film narrowly side-steps being an exploitation film by filming the same story in a different way.
The protagonist, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), is an Irish convict. Recently married with a baby, she is trying to get a letter of recommendation to end her conviction. When we first see her, she is singing a Gaelic lullaby to her baby as she walks to hard labour at the prison. The lieutenant in charge of their prison, Hawkins (Sam Claflin), is obsessed with her beautiful singing voice and refuses to let her leave. We see his face transfixed as she sings for the officers. In sharp contrast, Clare is forced to suffer through repeated rape at his hands in the hope he will let her and her family go free; he even tries to buy her compliance with trinkets. He is equally fixated on getting a promotion to work in a larger town, but his hopes are dashed when an inspector finds his prison badly run. When Clare’s husband again asks for their freedom, Hawkins turns his rage and disappointment on them. The violence is terrible. He and his cronies kill her husband, Jago (Harry Greenwood) kills her baby, Hawkins rapes her again and tells one of his cronies, Ruse (Damon Herriman), to do the same. Clare is left for dead and Hawkins decides to set out for the city to seek his promotion.
Waking up to pure desolation, Clare sets out to follow him on her horse, Becky, her most cherished possession. To guide her through the jungle, a friend directs her to Billy Blackbird (Baykali Ganambarr). She tells Billy that she is following her husband and strikes up a bargain for his services, but treats him like a distrusted slave, calling him only “boy”. Over the course of the trip, she comes to depend on him and he comes to realise her mission is one of revenge when she murders (in brutal fashion) the man who killed her baby. In turn, Hawkins’ crony, Ruse, kills Billy’s Uncle Charlie (Charlie Jampijinpa Brown), giving Billy a stake in the revenge plot.
When they finally catch up, Clare is unable to kill Hawkins and makes peace with embarrassing him in front of his superiors, but Billy in not satisfied. Under cover of night, he returns to kill Hawkins and Ruse, where he is fatally wounded. The story ends with Clare and Billy on a beach at dawn awaiting a no-doubt terrible fate for their crime. There is no joy in this ending, no vindictive glee in our protagonists.
I found it really interesting the way that the movie draws parallels between violence against women, children, and people of colour. Hawkins is the personification of all crimes of colonisation, hypnotised by the beauty of her voice, the appearance of culture. We would like to think such times are over, and yet, even in 2018, an Italian critic shouted “whore” and “shame on you” when Kent’s name appeared in the credits at the Venice Film Festival, where she was also, notably, the only female director featured. What was his intent? Was he objecting to her depiction of violence? There is no small irony in that when you consider the history of Giallo exploitation films in Italy.