THE NIGHTINGALE (2019)

REVIEW BY LL SOARES

Australia (and its surrounding isles) were a brutal place in the 1800s. Brutal because the islands were penal colonies for the British to send their “undesirables” (and abuse of these undesirables by British soldiers was common), and also because of those same soldiers’ treatment of the aborigines of the lands, which often involved murder. THE NIGHTINGALE, the new movie by Jennifer Kent (who previously made the popular horror film THE BABADOOK in 2014), takes place right in the heart of these brutal times.

It’s Tasmania in 1825, and an Irish convict named Clare (Aisling Franciosi, who was previously in the series THE FALL, 2013-2016, and had a small role in GAME OF THRONES) is being treated horribly by a British soldier named Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin, who was Finnick Odair in THE HUNGER GAMES movies). Hawkins got her freed from prison and put into his “care” years before, and this means that he pretty much owns her. It sounds like her crime back in England was petty theft due to poverty (the fact that she’s Irish probably added to the harshness of her sentence). Despite Hawkins’ mistreatment, he does let Clare have some hope. He allows her to marry a fellow Irish convict named Aidan (Michael Sheasby, HACKSAW RIDGE, 2016), and she has a baby. But any hope she’s allowed to have doesn’t last long.

After so much time under his thumb, Hawkins is supposed to write a letter to the courts to attest that Clare has served her time. She wants to be free and start fresh with her new family. But Hawkins has no intention of freeing her.

You see, Hawkins is a vindictive bastard. He’s been in the same town for three years now, and is due for a promotion (he was originally told he’d only have to be there one year). A superior officer who arrives in town to evaluate him is disgusted by the drunken shenanigans and disorder of the soldiers Hawkins commands, and decides not to recommend him for the higher position, which makes the already volatile Hawkins even more so. If he’s going to suffer, he’s going to make sure everyone around him suffers, too.

A drunken night of anger gets out of hand, leading to the (horrible) death of Clare’s family, and then Hawkins leaves the following morning to plead his case directly to the officer who will decide about his promotion.

And Clare is determined to go after him and kill him for what he’s done to her.

Aside from the deaths of her husband and baby, Hawkins has also raped Clare several times (once right in front of her husband, a rough scene!), so he certainly deserves whatever he gets. Of course, he’s one of those slimy bastards who seems to get away with most of his horrific behavior, so bringing him to justice won’t be easy.

There are no roads, so the soldiers have to travel through the wilderness with the aid of an aborigine guide. Clare does the same, hiring a man named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). When he at first turns down her offer of employment, she has to coerce him by gunpoint to agree to help her.

Hawkins’ group includes Sergeant Ruse (Damon Herriman, who was Dewey in JUSTIFIED, 2010-2015, and is Charles Manson in Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD and in the upcoming Season 2 of the series MINDHUNTER), who is just as vicious as he is and who revels in his superior’s behavior;  an officer-in-training named Jago (Harry Greenwood, also in HACKSAW RIDGE) who is complicit in Hawkins’ crimes but has a conscience that is tormenting him about it; and three convicts, including a young boy named Eddie (Charlie Shotwell, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, 2016), who Hawkins takes a shine to, and decides to groom to become a horrible bastard like him.

I liked this movie a lot because of the flaws in Clare’s plan. Despite the fact that she is filled with rage, she doesn’t really plan this out very well. Clare just has her horse, a gun, and Billy. This isn’t one of those movies were revenge goes off without a hitch. Clare is far from a methodical killing machine, something she realizes with horror when she finally gets close to her quarry and the big showdown.

The best relationship in the film is the one between Clare and Billy. At first, Clare sees him as someone who is even lower in the pecking order of the world than she is, and Billy sees her as just another abusive white invader. But over time, they grow to see the humanity in each other, and trust one another. They’re both downtrodden people who want to get out from under the thumb of fate.

Hawkins, meanwhile, continues to be a vile monster, including when Ruse comes across an aborigine woman in their journey, and drags her along with them.

Hawkins and his band are ghastly creatures. Hawkins himself hides his evil behind a handsome façade, but he’s rotten to the core. The fact that Clare is so determined to make him pay for his crimes is praiseworthy, but she’s only human, not some Marvel superhero.

The ending, while satisfying, isn’t what we’re expecting, and that makes it all the more powerful.

By the way, the title refers to Clare’s singing. She sings so beautifully that she is brought before soldiers to sing for them. The way her gift has been corrupted adds to the sadness.

Jennifer Kent became a director to watch with her debut feature THE BABADOOK. Her new film is very different, and expands her range as a filmmaker. I’m even more interested now to see what she’ll do next.

THE NIGHTINGALE is rough going at times, but the payoff is powerful. I give it three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives THE NIGHTINGALE ~~ 3 1/2 knives!

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