The Nightingale: Young Australia


One of the best trips I ever made was to Australia. In Sydney, I wanted to buy a book about the country, preferably something historical. A helpful woman in a bookstore pointed me to an Australian bestseller, ”Girt”, where David Hunt takes us through the early years of the continent’s colonization. The writing and attitude is humorous and playful, but the darkness is always there. The beginning of what we call Australia is pretty horrifying. This film is not shy in its portrait of those times.

Working as a servant for the British Army
The year is 1825 and we’re in Van Diemen’s Land, the island now known as Tasmania. The Black War is raging between British colonists and Aboriginals. Clare Carroll (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict working in a remote part of the island as a servant for a British Army unit. She’s hoping to finally receive a letter from the lieutenant in charge that will grant her freedom, so she can leave the island together with her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) and baby. However, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) has no intention of letting her go; Clare has a beautiful singing voice and Hawkins is attracted to her, preferring to keep her caged like his personal nightingale.

After an incident that leaves him humiliated, Hawkins and two of his men exact revenge on Clare and her family. Robbed of everything that matters to her in life, Clare turns into an avenging angel…

Examining Australia’s dark history
Jennifer Kent became famous outside Australia thanks to the horror movie The Babadook (2014); that was her ticket to Hollywood and she started receiving a lot of American screenplays after that. But the movie she made remained firmly in Australia and examined its dark history. Everybody’s heard of the nation’s beginning as a penal colony and the film addresses the hostility between the British Army and the convicts who were transported to this remote, hostile location. In Clare’s case, it’s worse than that. She’s Irish and loathes the British, but has to tolerate being raped by the unit’s commanding officer.

The conflict comes to a head and what Hawkins and his collaborators do to Clare and her family is perhaps the film’s toughest scene to endure. After that, she has every reason to go after the three men who are headed to Launceston, a town where Hawkins will try to convince a senior officer that he should be promoted captain. None of them expect a woman like Clare to track them down, but she enlists the help of Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), a native tracker. At first, her racist sensibilities, common at the time, prevent her from viewing him as a human being, but a bond grows between the two. The Nightingale shows how utterly destructive Britain’s arrival in Australia was to the Aboriginals, but also how worthless women were to men in power in the 1820s. The film’s depiction of racism and misogyny, illustrated by graphic rapes and acts of unspeakable violence, has been the subject of some debate, but in a case like this where the story is so strong and the violence serves a purpose it’s hard to object.

There are many moments here that are infuriating, repellent and just sad to behold, scenes that underline the profound tragedy of not only Clare’s journey, but that of several other characters. Traveling through the wilderness of Van Diemen’s Land is awe-inspiring and we’re never sure of where the film will lead us.

The cast is a great reason to see the movie – Franciosi as a woman who has nothing left to lose; Claflin as a dapper brute whose weak spot is his pathetic desire for status; and Ganambarr as the ”blackbird” who’s trying to survive in a country that has been stolen. 

The Nightingale 2019-Australia. 136 min. Color. Produced by Kristina Ceyton, Steve Hutensky, Jennifer Kent, Bruna Papandrea. Written and directed by Jennifer Kent. Cinematography: Radek Ladczuk. Cast: Aisling Franciosi (Clare Carroll), Sam Claflin (Hawkins), Baykali Ganambarr (Billy), Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie.

Venice: Special Jury Prize.

Last word: “My commitment was to absolutely research the heck out of it. We found this amazing Tasmanian elder who understood I wasn’t trying to appropriate the story, that I was sincere in what I was trying to say. If I was going to do it, it had to be in collaboration  […] It’s honestly been the joy of my life, the most precious thing for me creatively and as a person, to learn more about that culture. It’s 60,000 years old. If a culture can survive for that long and keep the land that they live in pristine and surviving, there’s got to be some wisdom there.” (Kent, Indiewire)



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