Historical films centred around race never tend to be light-hearted, and The Nightingale goes full-on with its portrayal of utterly dehumanising and atrocious subjugation. It’s an astonishingly made film, on a technical level, that paints its cruel setting in broad colours so that its intense visceral effect doesn’t quite evolve into an emotional or edifying one.
Though not exactly a horror film, The Nightingale contains more than a handful of scenes of horrific violence aimed at “rescued” Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi), as well as her husband and baby, and the Indigenous folk of the community, with almost all this brutality perpetrated by British Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Clafin).
Hawkins is a solipsistic man who’s travelling through the Tasmanian wilderness into town, guided by his Indigenous tracker (Charlie Jampijinpa Brown). The deadening bluntness of his pure evil make him a derivative archetype, playing out like an un-updated remake of Gary Sweet’s similar villain from The Tracker (2002), a clear-as-crystal antagonist who’s characterised with nothing but shallow villainous tropes, making him feel less like a character and more like a device for the story’s conflicts.
Clare follows close behind him, dead-set on exacting revenge upon him and his horrendous actions, accompanied with her own Indigenous tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). Similarly to her assailant, she views her tracker as temporary property and despises any human traits he displays. The wilderness of 1825’s Tasmania that they traverse through reveals the murderously hostile worldview of this setting and its inhabitants. Billy often puts himself a few steps ahead of Clare, not to show off his tracking skills, but to avoid any white characters, any of whom may feel the desire to shoot him dead for no reason other than a quick thrill.
But unlike her assailant, she and Billy are able to share their pain, using their bond to help navigate their way to Hawkins. This evolution of their racial mutuality gradually materialises, but the shared pain of these cultures isn’t explored introspectively enough to come to much of a cathartic zenith, even though a close eye is kept on the evolution of how these characters look at each other – first with immense hatred, then with a shared understanding and sympathy.
This shameful history is re-enacted with a pummelling effect, though the characters within it hardly act in surprising or shocking ways like they do in the similar race drama The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), where the lines of good and evil among the races were murkier, and thus more revealing of our complicated humanity. Director Jennifer Kent has a masterful directorial style that portrays this nightmarish history, though as a screenwriter, she doesn’t leave room for nuance.