The early career path of a breakthrough filmmaker can be a treacherous one. Respond to Hollywood’s call and you risk selling out; pursue an independent route and you risk fading away. And what to do along that path? Hew too close to your previous work and people will say you’re a one-trick pony; stray too far from it and you risk stretching yourself beyond your limits. The pressure is doubled if you’re a female filmmaker: all the industry’s second chances seem to be gobbled up by all their mediocre white men, stalling so many female directors’ careers after their first or second features. Brava, then, to Jennifer Kent, whose film The Babadook stunned audiences worldwide in 2014 and has since, justly, become a modern horror classic. Never mind resisting Hollywood’s call (and indeed they did call), she’s doubled down on her indie integrity with The Nightingale, a brazenly uncommercial, gruelling, challenging historical epic writ little, brutal and grim in the least accessible way, and quite brilliant as well.
Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict in 1825 Tasmania, recently released but still under the charge of British army officer Hawkins (Sam Claflin). When he and his men flee after committing a terrible act of violence against Clare and her family, she reluctantly enlists an Aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to guide her across the wilderness in their pursuit, with nothing but vengeance on her scarred mind. An unforgiving landscape makes for a rough, punishing journey for all involved, one that lends itself not to clean, concise plotting and scenes of catharsis and resolution, but to frustration, to deflating repetition, to arcs that are elongated far past their expected end and arcs that are dispensed with in swift, cruel cuts. Kent’s film seems to send a message to those who would see her career take an easier path to success – true fulfilment is achieved not by capitulating to what others desire for you, but by doggedly following your own aims at whatever cost. Early and often, The Nightingale moves forward in sluggish stupor or in sudden jolts, a disarming and callous reminder that what you may expect from this story, or from Kent herself, is irrelevant when set against what this story requires of itself.
There are no easy solutions here to any struggle, and as Clare’s quest undergoes setback after setback, as one struggle falls away, several more rise to take their place. To know one’s own place appears to be the only answer to finding something even close to contentedness, though even that is beset by unlimited struggle, and Clare’s own place is a wretched, charred spot in the wake of the trauma she’s experienced. Revenge will not save her, and she seems to know that, but hers is not a conscious choice. It’s a duty, a mark of respect for the hope that she’s lost, the only thing that kept her moving forward then, now driving her forward in a furious cross-country sprint. She’ll endure anything, for she already has; she’ll force Billy to endure anything too, though their shared torment at the hands of British men will gradually come to complicate their prescribed relationship. Clare knows no better than to bully this young black man, though it’s an indication of Kent’s intelligence as a writer that she neither condemns this character for her flaws nor supplies her with crass redemption as her attitudes soften.
Franciosi is tender and frightening as Clare, a woman stripped bare to her fundamental emotional drives, unable to prevent them from flailing wildly at whatever, or whoever, crosses her path. She keeps her portrayal anchored by a vivid sense of who this woman is, settling each of those intense emotions within a firm character foundation. Ganambarr’s Billy is somewhat bemused by all this crazy white silliness, though his existence is one of similar extremes, and he’s incredibly expressive in the part with apparently minimal effort. Such complex figures make The Nightingale a highly rewarding watch, even as it feels like your hopes and expectations of it are constantly being thwarted. Like The Babadook, this story situates two damaged souls in the midst of a punishing genre picture, and tests them to their limits, exploring the fullest breadth of what they can express and of what that picture can achieve. It’s a rocky path that Kent has set herself along, but it’s the bumps in the road that produce the biggest responses. May that rocky path stretch on forever!
This review is from the Sundance London Film Festival. The Nightingale will be released on August 2nd by IFC Films.