Australian director Jennifer Kent, internationally acclaimed for her horror film The Babadook, has excelled herself with her latest offering: the beautiful and devastating The Nightingale.
The film is set in cruel times, in Van Dieman’s Land in the 1820s, when brutish British soldiers had total control of the land, the convicts and the displaced Aborigines.
The nightingale is the young Irish convict Clare, played by the outstanding Italian-Irish actress Aisling Franciosi (Lyanna Stark in Game of Thrones).
Nicknamed for her sweet voice, Clare is bound to the sadistic British lieutenant Hawkins (an impressive Sam Klafin), who abuses her, rapes her at will, and refuses to sign the letter which will free her.
After an horrific episode which leaves Clare unconscious and her husband and baby dead, she resolves to take revenge on the murderers, Hawkins and two low-life offsiders (Damon Herriman and Harry Greenwood).
The three soldiers have headed north through wild bush country for Launceston, where Hawkins hopes to argue his case for a promotion and transfer.
At gunpoint, Clare enlists an unwilling black tracker, Mangana, known as Billy, (the wonderful Baykali Ganambarr), to guide her on the trackless way.
This is dangerous country, with marauding Aboriginal survivors ravaging the few isolated homesteads, and passing ruffians liable to attack a lone woman traveller.
As the slow and hazardous journey progresses, Clare’s and Billy’s relationship gradually evolves from mutual dislike and suspicion to respect and friendship.
Director Kent has a lot to say in this film – about callous misuse of power, and the powerlessness of the victims; about violence begetting violence; about the contemptuous attitude of the white settlers to the Aborigines; about courage and resilience.
If there was ever a film to make you feel the pain of Aboriginal dispossession, this is it.
There is an excruciating moment when Clare and Billy meet a small group of soldiers, escorting three Aboriginal prisoners.
When Billy, speaking in language, asks the Aborigines about his tribe, and then about two other tribes, he is shattered to be told, “All dead.”
Kent, the only woman director in the Venice Film Festival last year, won the special jury prize for The Nightingale (which she also wrote and produced).
And Ganambarr, in his first film role (though a veteran of five years with the terrific Aboriginal dance group Djuki Mala), won the Venice award for best young actor.
The Nightingale is sometimes difficult to watch but it is powerful and unforgettable – one not to be missed.
Showing now at Luna Leederville and Luna On SX.
Watch the trailer…