The Nightingale is the most honest account of indigenous life during colonial times that an Australian filmmaker has ever managed to put on screen.
Do not be fooled by imitations which rewrite history to preclude the ugliness perpetrated against the land’s First Peoples and instead paint a leisurely picture of mateship. For hundreds of years, that was but a dream and this story – this movie – was the reality. Made with the assistance of indigenous Australians, be assured that you are watching an immaculately researched and thoroughly considered historical drama.
The film is almost impossibly difficult to watch during the first hour, but if you can survive the harrowing beginning you will make it through the remainder and be rewarded with an eye-opening experience that every Australian person should be subjected to at least once in their life. Our history is dark, violent, ugly and oppressive. We must understand that. We must acknowledge it.
Jennifer Kent is a masterful filmmaker. The Babadook was a terrifying descent into the mind of a person dealing with grief from the loss of a loved one, brilliantly disguised as one of the most original horror movies in many years.
Now Kent has returned with what must be the ultimate Australian period film. At 136 minutes, The Nightingale is a long and daunting task which is worth the time and mental effort required. The Babadook was excellent, but this goes many steps further and is a necessity for our country.
Performances are universally sublime, but particular mention must be made of both Aisling Franciosi as Clare, an Irish convict whose husband and infant son are murdered by British soldiers, and Baykali Ganambarr as Billy, the young tracker she employs at the hefty price of two shillings to assist with tracking down the troupe and hopefully exacting murderous revenge.
Kent has shot The Nightingale in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which recalls Robert Eggers’ choice to shoot 2015’s The Witch in 1.66:1. Both films use this framing as a creative construct to highlight the oppressive nature of the wild country in which they are set. The walls are closing in, or maybe they have always been this narrow.
You will find many negative reviews of this film. It moved one critic enough at the Venice Film Festival that he yelled sexist profanities as the director’s name scrolled at the end of that screening. These reviews are from uncomfortable people.
Imagine a critic being so willing to embrace the comfortable banality of the majority of today’s mainstream cinema that this brilliant alternative, this one-of-a-kind, ponderous, reflective and demanding work comes along and gets written off because it is too strong.
Art should always elicit this reaction. Great art always has.
It was an amazing experience to watch the Australian premiere of this film at the Adelaide Film Festival with my Celluloid Junkies partner Luke Kane, alongside an audience that included both Jennifer Kent and Baykali Ganambarr. They received a deserved extended standing ovation at the conclusion of the screening.