WHAT I LIKED: Jennifer Kent's historical thriller 'The Nightingale,' starts out as a cold-blooded revenge movie, but brilliantly morphs into a heart-warming character study about two people recognising and acting on their shared suffering *through* that revenge.
We begin witnessing an abhorrent group of soldiers rape, torture and treat a young maid Clare (Aisling Franciosi) like their property before murdering her husband and baby in front of her. She then sets out in a fit of rage with a paid black guide called Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to hunt them down as they travel North. That's a powerful source of engagement, but it stalls when the pair are simply travelling together as the film then increasingly focuses its time on the two of them and their relationship as they tackle the difficult terrain and human obstacles in front of them.
Initially, they're untrusting of each other - both believing that other person is more priviliged and free than themselves - but slowly they start to open up and recognise how they're united by their experience of intense loss; particularly at the hands of evil white men in their god-given positions of social power. That adds a beautifully human dimension to the film, whilst it equally ups the hatred you have for the officers and your longing for them to meet some kind of sticky end; a fact further emphasised when the film continually cuts to them commiting further heinous acts along their way.
Those compelling ingredients only hit home though because Kent brings them all to life so masterfully. On the one hand, she really doesn't shy away from the brutality. We see everything; from the disgusting way men speak to Clare throughout the film, to the horrid scenes of rape and murder that lie completely unabridged with gut-wrenching sound effects, close-ups on characters' tortured faces, and no cuts or music in sight to lessen the impact. Even the hostility of the cold Northern landscape is piercing to the soul, and whilst all that can make parts of the film exceedingly difficult to watch, I'm a big believer in the fact that seeing things is often essential to increase the impact. Here it certainly makes you root for Clare all the more.
But this isn't just a bloody and cruel film as some have suggested; it's also a very delicate one in places. The interactions between Clare and Billy are sparesly but beautifully written, and the way Kent clings her camera to their faces means you feel as though you connect to every thought and revelation that's going through their minds through the powerful visual medium rather than through dialogue.
That's all great stuff, but it's also important to note of course that none of it would have translated without the incredible central performances. Franciosi in particular is a tour de force in her central role; showing such defiance masking obvious trauma which all comes to a head in the inevitable, heart-wrenching final confrontation, whilst Ganambarr brings surprising warmth and brilliant cautiousness to his character.
All of that character work not only makes the film emotionally engaging, but it will also have you longing all the more for the evil officer to get some kind of justice, and thinking about what that should be in a world where his kind hold all the power.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: There are sections of the film - in which characters walk from one place to another for example, or make those connections mentioned earlier - where you can't help but feel the film is making a point that it's translated perfectly well already.
VERDICT: A masterful revenge movie come character study about two people slowly recognising their shared trauma and acting on it, Jennifer Kent's 'The Nightingale,' may be brutal, but it's also a warm film that both hook you emotionally and make you think. That's the mark of a truly great piece of work.