Half a decade ago, writer-director Jennifer Kent’s debut feature, The Babadook, was released amidst a maelstrom of hype, including The Exorcist director William Friedkin calling it the most terrifying film he’s ever seen. Truth be told, The Babadook wasn’t even the scariest film released that year, yet it remains a memorable horror-allegory with its pop-up-book boogeyman acting as a weaponized form of familial grief.
Kent’s follow-up, The Nightingale, shifts gears genre-wise — from horror to colonial western. However, the depiction of maternal trauma here makes her first film look like an episode of Family Matters. This is likely the most grueling theatrical experience to be had in 2019, filled with wanton acts of cruelty that serve to make grander statements about colonialism and the power men indiscriminately wield against others. Unfortunately, it’s also a miserable slog to sit through, a heavy-handed exercise in audience and character torture that lands its message far before the 136-minute runtime concludes.
Aisling Franciosi (Lyanna Stark in Game of Thrones) is Clare, a convict and an Irish immigrant in 1825 colonial Australia. Despite having a husband and infant child, she lives as the indentured servant of the vile and ill-tempered British officer Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who has yet to make good on the freedom he promised her several months prior. Very early on, something unspeakable occurs that sends Clare deep into the Tasmanian wilderness on a warpath for revenge.
The Nightingale peaks in these harrowing early scenes. Kent’s film does a fantastic job establishing the inherent danger of being a woman in this setting, and once she picks up a displaced Aboriginal guide named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) on her vengeance quest, that danger grows tenfold. Both characters’ lives have been devastated by colonialism, and British soldiers remain a looming threat throughout their violent expedition.
That searing tension gives way to tedium once the second act hits, and that’s mostly due to The Nightingale’s overbearing tone. There’s no question the film’s unflinching brutality is necessary: Clare and Billy are living embodiments of the ways white imperialism erases the dignity of any culture it touches. It’s a powerful theme, one that is touched upon again … and again … and again with endless scenes of rape, torture and murder that are at first a shock to a system, but that savagery quickly has a numbing effect. Not helping matters is how broadly painted the British villains are, and though their inhumanity may well be historically accurate, that doesn’t make their presence any more compelling.
The Coen Brothers once referred to directing as “tone management,” meaning a director’s role requires them to craft a tone that keeps an audience engaged with their characters’ emotional arc. In that regard, The Nightingale is a surprising failure. The film’s tone is bleak to the point of feeling almost ludicrous, and no matter how compelling its insights initially appear, the whole endeavor ultimately sinks under its own portent.
Underwhelming as it is, The Nightingale nonetheless shows Kent has the filmmaking chops of a born talent. Not a single performance (particularly Franciosi and Ganambarr) rings false, and a few stunningly photographed nightmare sequences — in which Clare’s victims are resurrected as soulless ghouls — are so startling you wish she had stuck with horror this time around. Kent’s sophomore effort depicts is no doubt horrific; still, I wish its real-world monsters felt as real as that 7-foot ghost from The Babadook.