While The Nightingale never gets more brutal than in its first hour—it runs two and a quarter—it’s almost more hopeless with less viciousness. The film’s about how the British slaughtered the Aboriginal Australians. It’s about quite a bit more, but the historical context is Australia in the early nineteenth century when people could still buy prisoners for themselves. The film opens with protagonist Aisling Franciosi starting her day on an army base in Tasmania. She’s got a husband (Michael Sheasby) and a baby. She and Sheasby were both convicts; he’s gotten his freedom, but she’s still waiting for hers. Her fate is in the hands of army lieutenant Sam Claflin. Claflin’s an outpost officer with big ambitions, despite his unspectacular command and his gang of misfit soldiers, sergeanted by Damon Herriman.
Claflin has to protect comely Franciosi from his men, who he keeps as drunk as possible. Sheasby works as a blacksmith at the outpost; they live in their own hut away from the camp. Claflin regularly rapes Franciosi, something Sheasby doesn’t know about.
Writer and director Kent hammers in the reality, scene by scene. It’s a violent, merciless approach, but it makes Nightingale a singular character study. The film starts when Claflin’s getting inspected by higher-up Ewen Leslie for a promotion. He’s already on edge when Sheasby’s had just about enough waiting about Franciosi’s release. Most of Nightingale is split between Franciosi’s perspective and Claflin’s. It changes in the third act, as Kent slightly changes the narrative distance. Nightingale is always about how Kent’s presenting the information; a lot of it is about what information the characters have and at what time.
The horrific showdown between Claflin and Sheasby establishes the film’s first hour. Claflin’s half of the film is about him and Herriman trying to teach new soldier Harry Greenwood how to be a proper British officer and kill and rape whoever you can. They’re traveling north inland, by foot, so Claflin can assume a new command and run away from Franciosi. Claflin tries to convince Greenwood there’s never any reason to worry about accountability, but it’s never quite clear how much he thinks his golden boy status will carry him. He’s a charming narcissist, and he keeps everyone around him drunk enough to be forever pliable.
Claflin’s great. Like, Franciosi’s great, but she gets to weather being battered on screen for the point of battering. Nightingale isn’t about how a bad thing happened to Franciosi, and she did these things in reaction to the events. It’s about how the only things for Franciosi were bad things. And Claflin has to embody the whole thing against her. It’s a monumental villain part–and Claflin’s great.
Franciosi’s going to follow Claflin and company and kill them. She’s a poor kid from Ireland who ended up in the Australian prison colony; she’s not going to mess around. But she’s going to need a guide. Except Franciosi’s a big-time racist because you really can’t have your exploited groups comparing notes as you’re exploiting them. Baykali Ganambarr plays her guide. He lost his family when he was a kid. Franciosi doesn’t want to share the pain with him because she doesn’t want to acknowledge his humanity. But he’s the only one who can get her to Claflin in time to kill him, so she’s going to make it work.
Nightingale is a revenge picture. The story Franciosi’s telling herself is one of righteous vengeance; it’s keeping her going. Ganambarr is just doing a job. Claflin’s just doing a job. How the characters perceive themselves plays into how all of them will react to one another along this physically arduous journey. Franciosi is a racist shit who doesn’t want to be traveling with Ganambarr. Still, she doesn’t understand everybody else is a racist shit who doesn’t want Ganambarr traveling along with her either. More than not wanting him traveling, they don’t want him existing. Nightingale takes place during a particularly intense period of genocide, which Ganambarr doesn’t know about until he’s already mixed up in Franciosi’s vengeance quest.
Their relationship—an acquaintanceship of mutually assured destruction—is the most complicated thing Kent does in Nightingale. Ganambarr shows up relatively late in the first act, and it’s even longer before he’s able to piece together Franciosi’s purpose. Everyone in Nightingale acts with their own agenda. The film implies partnerships are possible but rare. Kent spends most of the time in the wilderness. The time spent with the “settlers” is limited and precisely crafted. The audience is foreign to everything in Nightingale, but the characters are also foreign to many things. Ganambarr and Franciosi have very different experiences than the settlers; the British army ensures that separation by force. Kent’s very delicate about setting up all those scenes. How Kent angles the narrative distance is just as important as her composition. Nightingale mainlines its horrors.
Franciosi and Ganambarr are awesome. They don’t have the same weights as Claflin, but they also have much more to do. Their character arcs are sublime. Nightingale has exquisite cuts courtesy Simon Njoo. The way the performances carry between shots, through cuts is breathtaking. Kent does an amazing job directing Nightingale. She shoots it standard Academy ratio, so it’s a closer to square image, and she focuses on composing for the vertical. There are lots of great long shots, with beautiful lighting by Radek Ladczuk, and the composition is all about the horizon. The film doesn’t have many technical patterns, but during the first and second acts, Njoo will cut between parallel shots, creating something like a “widescreen” effect. Later in the film, when the narrative’s more aligned to Franciosi and Ganambarr, the shots still emphasize the vertical, and there are still establishing montages, but the focus is narrowed. Franciosi and Ganambarr can only see so much.
Great supporting turns from Herriman, Greenwood, Magnolia Maymuru, and Charlie Jampijinpa Brown.
The Nightingale is an extremely tough, rough piece of work. It’s exceptional.