Yes, writer / director Jennifer Kent‘s “The Nightingale” is all of these things. The story of a young Irish convict in Tasmania in the 1820s takes the classic revenge thriller and puts a powerful feminist spin on the story. It may be a period film at heart, but the parallels to the social bias minorities face on a daily basis is just as relevant in present day.
Clare (Aisling Franciosi) loses everything after her family is viciously attacked by the very British officers who have been holding her captive for years. Considered nothing more than their property, she has nowhere to turn for help and instead is driven to seek revenge on her own. Desperate for justice, Clare enlists the help of Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), a native Aboriginal tracker, to guide her through the Tasmanian wilderness. It’s a quest for blood that is born from a woman who sees revenge as the only thing she has left.
Franciosi is astounding as a woman who is pushed to her breaking point with an unbridled rage. Her performance is nothing short of extraordinary. There are excellent supporting turns from Ganambarr and Sam Claflin as one of the most despicable screen villains in recent memory. His Hawkins is almost a little too evil. It is not easy to root for anyone in this film, not even its bloodthirsty heroine. To soften the blows, the film sometimes feels like an unexpected love story as Clare and Billy begin to bond and rely on each other. It’s a reminder that when we find our commonality instead of focusing on our differences, the stronger we will be.
Kent’s script explores themes of racism, sexism, and oppression, including the fact that there will always be someone who will be seen as someone less valuable to society than you. It’s disturbing to think that even today there are certain men in positions of power who can get away with anything because nobody can (or will) stop them. This leads to a horrific honesty that’s manifested in several extended, graphic rape scenes. They’re stomach-churning and sickening, but never feel like an exercise in exploitation. One can argue the seemingly endless barrage of rapes and beatings and murders is necessary to convey the film’s message, but viewing this film is not an easy task.
Despite the vivid, realistic violence, there’s the particularly interesting idea presented of using violence as a problem solving tool. There’s an effective subtext about the after-effects of a traumatic incident as well as dealing with outbursts of violence within yourself. It’s tough to watch, but it also sadly feels like essential viewing in today’s divided society.