What follows could have been a higher-brow version of a Tarantino historical revisionist revenge tale, wherein someone who deserves justice takes it by any means necessary. After the harrowing first act, the viewer is certainly in need of some bloody catharsis. While I greatly enjoy the Inglourious Basterds of the world, that’s not the movie that Kent is making. The introduction of Billy, or Mangana as he was originally named, places Clare’s victimhood amongst an island rife with people who have gone through what she has and worse. The film lacks historical placards or text crawls, but happening in the background is the Black War between the colonialists and the aboriginals, a conflict that ended with all but a few dozen aboriginals remaining on the island. As Clare bears witness to this conflict through Mangana, the futility of finding justice here becomes apparent and the Nightingale shifts to the search for dignity, something that can be asserted by an individual instead of bestowed upon them. My favorite TV show, Deadwood, contained a similar thread in its final season, where the murder of a labor organizer was responded to by the camp fathers with a heartfelt obituary for the deceased in the local newspaper. As Deadwood asserted that the organizer was not merely an impediment to powerful forces, so does Clare insist that she is a living person entitled to some level of consideration.
If this was a simple revenge tale, however, Hawkins would serve as a worthy receptacle of righteous comeuppance. This is a uniquely despicable antagonist, teeming with entitlement and callousness and devoid of redeeming qualities. His bottomless anger is borne out of a resentment that everything, up to and including the use of the bodies of those around him, isn’t laid out before him. A person like him is uniquely suited to an environment where he can’t be punished, because no one cares what happens to a convict, much less an aboriginal. In the throes of his ghastly outbursts, what most sets him off is the screaming and the crying, likely because the noise prevents him from pretending that this is all sanctioned behavior and not horrendous affronts on fellow humans. The character never surprises the viewer, such that all one has to do in guessing Hawkins’ next move is imagine the worst thing he could do in any given situation, and he’ll meet you there.
The content of Kent’s script for The Nightingale was always going to be a tough sit, but the way that she films the proceedings compounds the difficulty. She leaves the viewer nowhere to hide, either visually or sonically. Scenes play out til unconsciousness or completion. In quieter moments, Kent builds on the Babadook and reverts to nightmares. Kent’s well-constructed and unsettling imagery matches up well with fellow dream-logic directors like Michael Haneke or David Lynch. Even the film’s potentially heartfelt moments are undercut by the intrusion of what those moments actually mean. When Clare and Mangana take shelter in a farmhouse, he is at first not permitted to sit at the dinner table with Clare and the homeowners. When he is invited to the table, it’s not treated as some warm-hearted act of racial reconciliation, but as a humiliating contradiction. A man is asked to sit at a table in his own country, and the asker thinks this basic courtesy is some grand gesture instead of a reminder of how Mangana’s world has been destroyed within his short lifetime.
Amongst all this difficulty, Franciosi, Claflin, and Ganambarr are stripping themselves bare and finding new layers of emotional nakedness to portray. Though their characters occupy different poles of a moral spectrum, all surely needed counseling to get through the Nightingale. There’s obviously the shock that Franciosi has to go through and the reliving of a black period in Ganambarr’s ancestry, but Claflin also must’ve experienced a kind of moral injury by inhabiting Hawkins. Kent asks all this of her cast to strip bare the myth of British propriety, that no one with buttons so shiny could rape and reave their way through the world. Something in that accent has blinded people, as if domination through colonialism could’ve been achieved in any way other than violence and oppression. The Nightingale, with its elongated and troublesome ending, isn’t so great as to make all of its horrors worth it, but in the unrecommendable category, it does shine a grim light on an underserved period of history. Getting to that light, however, requires a big ask of the viewer. B