The Nightingale (2018)
Written & Directed by Jennifer Kent
There are moments so harrowing and emotional that occur in The Nightingale that I felt like I might break down in tears. This is a rarity for me to find in a film, having watched so many and become aware of so many tropes and plot formulas. This isn’t to say that the inciting premise of The Nightingale will seem novel to other viewers, it isn’t. This is a revenge film centered around a female protagonist, the type of story told many times before and one that is particularly popular in our time. This isn’t a film about the catharsis of revenge; the final shot makes it clear that our main character is not redeemed in any manner. Instead, this is a story about the seemingly innate drive to seek bloody justice and the tremendous toll that takes on a human being.
Clare is an Irishwoman, sent to Van Diemen’s Land (now known as Tasmania) as a convict. She has served her time and married an Irish blacksmith, and together they have had a baby girl. However, Clare is not free because Lieutenant Hawkins continually reminds her that he holds her papers; thus, Clare is his property and not free to leave. She works as a kitchen servant in the day and is forced to sing for the resident soldiers in the evening, often being raped by Hawkins afterward. This changes when her husband confronts Hawkins and ends in tragic results. Clare has nothing left to lose and recruits an Aboriginal guide, Billy.
We see Clare reflecting the hierarchal system of her time, seemingly oblivious at first to how she views Billy as below her in the same way Hawkins percieves Clare. The more she begins to listen to Billy, a young man hatefully resentful of the English colonization, does she begin to see him as a fellow human. By the end of the film, it is implied that something exists between these two characters, but the film intentionally keeps the specifics vague. The most basic interpretation is that they provide each other comfort due to shared traumas.
Hawkins is probably the most controversial character in the film, and disagreements with what director Jennifer Kent was doing concerning him is what caused people to walk out of festival screenings. The acts of depravity Hawkins performs, and the regularity with which he does them can be overwhelming. A particular critical eye may perceive this as lifting Hawkins into a cartoonish exaggeration of English colonialism. I would instead frame his role as a metaphor for the destructive nature of toxic masculinity. The moment that starts the domino effect of horrors is when Hawkins is turned down for a promotion by his superior. The reason for this is that the men under Hawkins’ command are unruly violent drunkards, and this happened because the Lieutenant reviles his rural environs that he simply doesn’t give a shit about doing his job. Hawkins is a petulant man-child who feels entitled to a better assignment and upon realizing he won’t be getting that proceeds to kill and rape his way south.
I had expectations for where this film was going based entirely on the typical revenge horror film, and for the first couple acts, it feels like Kent is going to adhere to that form. The third act is where the movie starts to go on unexpected routes. Clare has a fever dream that has her tormented by the grief of what she has lost but also the guilt of taking a life. When they first set out, it is Clare who is overtaken by blood lust and Billy, who is attempting to stay out of the way of the gruesome English. By the end, Billy has been motivated to join Clare, but it becomes much less clear if she is up for the task anymore. The final moments of the film played out on a sandy beach as the sun rises are silent, save for a song from Billy. It’s Clare’s eyes that haunt us, looking out at a new day with the looming question of “What do I have to live for?” hanging unspoken in the air.
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