The Nightingale (2018)

The Nightingale
Director: Jennifer Kent
Writer: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Michael Sheasby, Damon Herriman, Sam Claflin, Harry Greenwood, Charlie Jampijinpa Brown, Magnolia Maymuru
Seen on: 16.7.2020

Content Note: rape, racism, gore

Clare (Aisling Franciosi) was convicted in Ireland and shipped to Tasmania where she works as a maid for the army stationed there, under the command of Hawkins (Sam Claflin). She was supposed to go free years ago, but Hawkins isn’t ready to let her go. Things escalate and Clare finds herself devastated and bent on revenge against Hawkins. Hawkins is traveling through the forest to the next big city, so Clare resolves to follow. She hires the Indigenous Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) as a guide and moved by her desparation, Billy agrees against his better judgment. Making their way through the forest comes with its challenges quite apart from a hard treck – especially for a white woman only accompanied by a Black man.

The Nightingale is a rape-revenge film without exploitation and a feminist look at colonialism that, unfortunately, fails a little when it comes to considering intersectionalities. In any case, it’s a demanding and harsh film that is worthy of attention.

The film poster showing Clare (Aisling Franciosi) with a black bird flying across her face, covering half of it.

The Nightingale is ambitious in the way it tries to show how the colonialist Brits feel entitled to everything – to the women around them, to the land around them and to the Indigenous people around them. It’s all their property in their heads and they take and destroy as they see fit. Racism and misogyny run parallel here – and they certainly do. But they also go hand in hand. Unfortunately, this is where the film falls a little flat: while it does feature an Indigenous woman (Magnolia Maymuru), she is pretty much sidelined by the plot, and, crucially, she doesn’t get any kind of victory in the end, not even a pyrrhic one like Billy and Clare. This is, unfortunately, not so much a comment on how racism and misogyny are seen as distinct phenomena and how therefore women of color often get shortchanged when considering either, but a reproduction of it.

Apart from that, though, it was great to see how Billy pushes back against any attempts of Clare to claim superiority over him (of course, that’s only possible because of Clare’s own vulnerable position) and how she needs to unlearn racism herself, despite belonging to an oppressed ethnic minority herself. The relationship between Billy and Clare is at the heart of the film and beautifully acted by both Franciosi and Ganambarr.

Clare (Aisling Franciosi) exhausted in a store.

The film is very violent, but it is never exploitative. The rape scenes are appropriately terrible, terrifying and uncomfortable, and show none of the sexualization that, unfortunately, creeps in so often in films. That also makes them very hard to bear – and you really need to prepare yourself for multiple scenes that hit very hard.

The end isn’t easy to take either: it looks like hope, but it’s a dead-end, basically. So there is no real relief here, no real solution. But at least Billy and Clare are there together – and maybe there is a kernel of hope in that solidarity after all.

Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) sitting in the dark.

Summarizing: Worth seeing, but steel yourself.

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