The Nightingale (2018) - Jennifer Kent
The revenge film is one of cinema's most versatile and diverse forms. It spans most genres, and in recent years has become something of an obsession across Hollywood cinema and beyond. Quentin Tarantino has exhausted the format through a rank of the film in multiple genres. Action cinema seems entirely devoted to the genre, especially after the success of franchises such as Taken. And more recently female directors have begun dipping their toe in the genre, most notably with Coralie Fargeat's excellent Revengtheire and Sarah Daggar-Nickson's A Vigilante. Both revisionists takes on the genre. It's perhaps unsurprising that female directors have taken the decision to make revenge films. Too often revenge film plots focus on revenge being taken by men against abuses on women. These male-centric films often feel doubly insensitive, both in their depiction of the abuse and violence against women, and the fact that it's men who seek vengeance, denying women of the right to exert revenge for the injustices to which they are so often the recipients. The films of Fargeat and Daggar-Nickson both offer unique, fascinating, and rich reinterpretations of the genre, essentially reclaiming revenge for women. They both intentionally avoid glorifying abuse and when they do verge into the gratuitous it is always the attackers that on the receiving end. Especially in Revenge. These films also allow women to find deep reservoirs of strength and resilience in the face of these abuses.
Jennifer Kent's follow-up to her debut masterpiece The Babadook enters the revenge sub-genre from a historical and political perspective which aligns the revenge film with the oppressive colonialism of the British Empire tying the abuse of women and the indigenous population of Australia to exceptional effect. It's a film that uses, bends, and distorts the expectations and conventions of the revenge film to tell a rich, engrossing, and visually stunning film about the oppressed and their oppressors, drawing stark conclusions about who creates, controls, and manipulates civilisations and who really are the civilised and uncivilised.
In a remote outpost in Tasmania, former Irish convict Claire (an astonishing Aisling Franciosi) is indebted to British Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin, whose reputation and range grows with each performance). Despite having served her time, and being married to Aidan, and with a young baby, she is at the mercy of Hawkins, whose signature she requires to give her freedom. Hawkins rapes Claire when she confronts him over his delay to sign her release papers. Later, Aidan confronts Hawkins resulting in multiple devastating acts of violence which sets off the film's revenge narrative. These moments are uncompromising and this sets a stark, brutal tone which Kent uses to exceptional effect through the running time. It's a shocking opening act that leaves you reeling, and at once completely behind Claire's retributive journey but deeply unnerved and affected by the actions. It's telling that Kent chooses to depict the violence the way she does; a surprisingly delicate approach, which is in contrast to the brutal and blunt moments of violence. Yet, also not explicitly depicted. The violence is abrupt and often off-camera. Instead, the film deploys clever usage of editing and sound design.
Following the tragic events, Hawkins set off to Launceston in the hope of securing a promotion which will see him relieved of the squalid regiment and circumstances he finds himself in. Along for the ride are his accomplices; the disgusting Sergeant Ruse, and Ensign Jago. Both guilty of perpetrating heinous crimes against Claire, under the command and control of Hawkins. These three men come to represent the British colonists. Hawkins is a man who believes he sits below his rightful position, but through his actions to his men, women and the indigenous population reveals himself to be the most despicable and uncivilised of them all. He carries that smug self-entitlement and feeling of superiority which enables him to justify his actions to others because they are all beneath him. Ruse is a drunk, who is driven by his carnal lusts, which seemingly no few restrictions. Later he kidnaps an indigenous woman, forcing her to abandon her child, and subjects her to acts of violence and abuse. Ensign Jago is the most innocent of them all and the one who carries the most guilt. But his actions are the personification of the system and hierarchy in which he lives. He exhibits no agency or power over the Hawkins and Ruse, but is complicit in the crimes and never speaks out. In Jago, you can see how the systemic abuse is inescapable but engendered.
Claire sets out after Hawkins and his men, after the local Military Police offer no support, with one goal in mind; Vengeance. She enlists the help of an Aboriginal man, Billy. Initially, there is animosity between the two with Claire treating Billy with similar levels of disdain as the British soldiers. Gradually though, as they spend time with each other, Claire's opinion softens as she sees reflected in him the oppression of which she is also a victim. One of the film's great strengths lies in this relationship and it organically unfolds and develops. Kent's script gives both Claire and Billy (and by extension the Aboriginal's) plight breathing space to be explored and developed. We see it in both action and conversation. Billy also earns Claire's respect as he tracks and navigates the perilous journey. Eventually, as they realise that their goals are the same - to get revenge on the oppressive colonialists who have destroyed their lives and their families.
Where The Nightingale develops and undermines the revenge drama is in the how. When Claire finally catches up with Hawkins and her men, the film fails to offer the cathartic payoff so familiar with the genre. She does deliver her own violent retribution but it is never satisfying nor cathartic. And it forces you to question whether this act can ever really balance out the experience Claire herself has had to endure. The film is also much more interested in how the moment impacts Claire. Firstly, Claire remains deeply human throughout. Often in revenge films, the violated party takes on superhuman powers; enduring the unendurable and through sheer force of will overcomes any and all obstacles between them and revenge. That simply isn't the care in The Nightingale. Claire is distraught after her first moment of vengeance and very quickly learns she is neither physically, emotionally, or intellectually equipped to outsmart, outwit and outmaneuver Hawkins and his men. This comes both as an act of defeat, humiliation, and failure. On a broader thematic level though the film is reminding us that for these people there is no resolution, no ending of the oppression. And to suggest otherwise would be disingenuous and trite. But this being a revenge film, Hawkins and his men must pay, and pay they do. The film leaving you with the reminder that it is men, not women who are the harbingers of violence. Claire does get her moment to confront Hawkins however, as she unceremoniously bursts in and denounces Hawkins in front of fellow officers. This act alone is enough to destroy his reputation and image in the eyes of his fellow and superior officers. The British colonists caring the appearance of civilisation more than anything else.
The film ends on a note of symbolic and visual wonder as Claire and Billy reach the ocean and watch as the sun rises on another day. The film is no doubt about the future of these characters. They have no home or families to return to. They possibly have no future other than that of running from colonial rule. Billy's land and family have been destroyed and stolen, as has Claire's. Claire has no hope (or possibly desire) of seeking the freedom only Hawkins could deliver. Ultimately both are still under the heel of white men, the institutions, and their whims. It's a powerful statement and possibly more shocking than the unrelenting acts of violence to which the film has subjected us.
The Nightingale is nothing short of a masterpiece. A stunning, uncompromising vision from a director who has broadened her scope, but sharpened her skills in doing so. It's not a comfortable watch, nor is it intended to be. But it's vital, ferocious and exceptional on every level.