The Nightingale

Director: Jennifer Kent

Starring: Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Sam Claflin

Words – Carly Stevenson

In her second film, director Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) explores the horrors of colonialism with unflinching honesty. The Nightingale is a Gothic drama set mostly in the Tasmanian wilderness during ‘The Black War’: a period of violent conflict between British colonists and Aboriginal Australians in the mid-nineteenth century.
The film tells the story of Clare Carroll (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict who seeks vengeance for the brutal murder of her family at the hands of the cruel Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) and his men. Clare enlists the help of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), who agrees to guide her through the bush in pursuit of Hawkins in exchange for payment. Her initial hostility towards Billy softens as she acknowledges the parallels between their plights: both have had their family, homeland, language, freedom and dignity stripped away by the British. Indeed, both Clare and Billy belong to a conquered people, and yet, it is problematic to compare their different experiences of colonisation.
United by their mutual hatred of white men who abuse their power, Clare and Billy forge an unlikely friendship that is made all the more poignant by their shared affinity with birds: Billy’s real name is Mangala, Palawa Kani for ‘blackbird’, while Clare is haunted by memories of Hawkins calling her ‘his nightingale’ – an evocative symbol of the tragic story of Philomela in Greek mythology.

The performances from the two leads are exceptional, and Radek Ladczuk’s cinematography adeptly conveys the gradual dissolution of boundaries between these two characters through the smallest of gestures: an expressive glance, a tender joining of hands, Clare carefully inching her sleeping mat closer to Billy as he sleeps, all traces of her initial aversion extinguished. When they sing – Clare in Gaelic and Billy in his native tongue – we are reminded not of the discordance in their languages, but the harmony of their songs.

In many ways, The Nightingale is reminiscent of Jane Campion’s The Piano: both films are set in British-occupied parts of the Southern Hemisphere in the mid-nineteenth century and both have female leads who possess little or no agency in the foreign spaces they inhabit. The Nightingale could also draw comparisons to The Revenant in its treatment of themes such as wilderness, the frontier and the suffering of indigenous peoples.
Notwithstanding these comparisons, The Nightingale stands out for its in-depth exploration of the acts of complicity that prop up empires. Through the character of Clare, the film examines the conditions that compel oppressed people to oppress other oppressed people and in doing so, Kent has delivered a film that is not only haunting and powerful, but vital.