“The Nightingale,” a historical drama by Jennifer Kent, marks the sophomore effort of the writer-director, who made a smashing debut in 2014 with the creepy, devilishly intelligent horror movie “The Babadook.”
The story on offer here is more conventional, if no less disquieting: In 1825 Tasmania, an Irish convict named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) has finished serving her seven-year sentence in the island’s penal colony but is being held in indentured servitude by a ruthless British officer named Hawkins (Sam Claflin).
When the young woman dares to demand the freedom that’s her due, her impertinence is rewarded by a ruthless rape; later, when her husband fights on her behalf, the episode ends with several unspeakable acts of brutality, including a horrific infanticide.
Grim, enraging and unrelenting, “The Nightingale” then becomes a classic revenge story, reconceived by Kent to interrogate the form’s conventions as much as indulge in them.
Deeply atmospheric and dutifully slow-moving, “The Nightingale” follows Clare as she follows Hawkins, who is up for a promotion in a town several miles to the north. To help chase him, she enlists the help of Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal tribesman and accomplished tracker.
If Clare recruits the audience’s sympathy as a victim of sexism at its most vicious and objectifying, she loses it almost as fast when she treats Billy with hostility and condescension.
The central question of “The Nightingale” quickly shifts from whether Clare will get her man to whether these two protagonists – who have been so grievously traumatized by the same colonial and patriarchal systems – can overcome their mutual mistrust to realize that they’re natural allies.
As she did in “The Babadook,” Kent displays an authoritative control over the image and material in “The Nightingale,” giving a genre historically interested in male heroics with a welcome reality check.
Epic studies in physical punishment such as “The Revenant” have nothing on this portrait of extreme suffering, which treats notions of white European expansion, male impunity and wilderness-taming with far sharper skepticism than that earlier, more romantic movie.
Like “The Revenant,” “The Nightingale” becomes something of a slog, as Clare’s journey plods toward its maybe-inevitable end, and her various encounters with Billy and others becomes more obviously episodic. This is indisputably a well-made and often exquisitely beautiful movie, executed with brio and attention to detail.
But it’s more admirable than enjoyable, especially when Kent’s subversion of the vendetta form withholds catharsis in favor of something far more ambiguous and unsatisfying.
It’s clear that the filmmaker seeks to turn her gaze not just on the subjects of the past but the audience of the present, turning our own desires – at their most coarsely visceral and crassly sentimental – back on ourselves. The last image of “The Nightingale” says it all: Kent knows full well what we want, but she isn’t about to give it to us without a fight.
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