The Nightingale works best as a ghost story, which should come as no surprise to those familiar with writer-director Jennifer Kent’s debut feature, The Babadook. In that 2014 film, a malevolent specter haunted a grieving mother and her child. In The Nightingale, a mother might be the spook.
Aisling Franciosi stars as Clare, an Irish convict in 1825 Tasmania who—though married and the mother of an infant—is still under the service of a cruel British military officer (Sam Claflin). After a violent assault leaves her devastated and nearly dead, she pursues the offenders into the wilderness in search of revenge, convincing an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to serve as her guide.
Much of The Nightingale is broadly drawn and underlined more than it needs to be. The villains verge on cartoonish; Clare’s transition from victim to angel of vengeance is abrupt. There has been debate over the graphic depiction of violence in the film, which is sickening and unblinking. Still, the explicitness undoubtedly forces you to face the brutal trauma that was inflicted upon women in this particular time and place—indeed, has been inflicted throughout history.
The Nightingale clearly draws parallels between Clare’s experience and that of Billy, whose entire country has been raped and pillaged by the British. After some early, prickly interactions (which made me fear we were headed for a Tasmanian Driving Miss Daisy), the two come to a deeper understanding of each other’s predicaments. Their declamatory conversations over campfires are a bit on the nose; far better are the songs they offer, as when Clare is forced to perform for British soldiers or when Billy delivers an ode to his ancestral name. In these moments, Franciosi and Ganambarr lace their singing with more sorrow and pride than any bit of dialogue could convey.
Billy also fits into the ghost motif, considering the way he vanishes into thin air whenever he and Clare are about to encounter white men on the trail. (At first she accuses him of running away, but later she sees the wisdom of his disappearing act.) The further they travel, often without food, the more pallid Clare becomes. By the time she catches up with her first target—ashy-faced, floating through the forest on her horse—it’s no wonder he looks at her agape, as if she’s an apparition. Moments later, when she stands over him, Kent cuts to his point of view (POV shots during moments of violence are a recurring motif in The Nightingale) and she resembles a terrible witch—white face and black hair stark against a background of barren tree branches and gray sky.
Franciosi and Ganambarr lace their singing with both sorrow and pride.
I wish the movie had played with the possibility of Clare’s ghostliness a bit more. There are a few moments that could be interpreted as Clare’s actual death (a la Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in The Revenant), but she’s mostly depicted as an actual living being. A climactic confrontation is cathartic, especially in the way it involves another song, but a bit more ambiguity about Clare’s earthly presence could have lent the moment a hint of Macbeth, in which a murderous king is tormented by a figure only he sees.
The Nightingale, like The Revenant, is ultimately a revenge tale. Yet after Clare’s initial “kill,” Kent allows space for guilt and regret. (In this way it recalls the Coen brothers’ True Grit.) Suddenly Clare becomes the haunted, suffering visions of the dead, including the man she killed. It’s a devastating depiction of the cycle of violence, how victim can become abuser, and thereby experience their trauma all over again.
Given this, the final 15 minutes of the film puzzle me, considering they give in to a burst of vengeful violence. This not only undercuts what had previously made The Nightingale unique as a revenge film, but also frustratingly shifts Billy out of his own story and even further into the role of Clare’s sacrificial servant. It’s a finale that “satisfies,” I suppose, but doesn’t haunt as much as it could.