The Australian writer and director Jennifer Kent carved her initials into the cinematic psyche with her debut, The Babadook, a jangling, twisted domestic chiller featuring moments of throat-constricting parental panic. But her follow-up feature, The Nightingale, is a whole other level of horrifying. It’s a punishing watch; a harrowing film which boots home its message by gouging at the vulnerable soft spots of the audience. Like the world she depicts, Kent’s storytelling shows no mercy.
Set in Tasmania (or Van Diemen’s Land, as it was then known) in 1825, this period revenge movie brings together sexual politics and post-colonial rage, drawing parallels between the plight of Irish ex-convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) and that of aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). Clare has served her sentence but her fate is dictated by the whims of the cruel British lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). One such whim robs Clare of all that she holds dear, and sets her on a quest for retribution. To track Hawkins and his cronies, Clare employs Billy to guide her north through the inhospitable bush. Billy too has lost loved ones, identity and pride at the hands of the “civilising” British.
Like the film’s boxy aspect ratio, the storytelling is tight and unwavering. The victim’s eye view of sexual violence is just one of several profoundly unsettling elements in a picture that has more in common with the downbeat ache of fellow Australian Warwick Thornton’s aboriginal western Sweet Country than with the brash hyper-assault of the rape vigilantism in Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge.
Both Billy and Clare give voice to their defiance through the songs of their people. And it’s this – the judiciously used music – that gives us a sense that there’s some beauty left in this world, something worth clinging to.