The Nightingale is the new film from Jennifer Kent, the writer-director behind the 2014 break-out horror hit The Babadook. Some films land on my personal Must See list based solely on the talent involved. This was one of those times. It was one of my most eagerly anticipated releases of 2019, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. My faith in Jennifer Kent was well-placed.
The film is set in Tasmania in 1825. The country is a penal colony under British imperial rule, and the local aboriginal tribes have been subjugated. Prisoners from England, Scotland, and Ireland serve their sentences and find themselves trapped thousands of miles away from home when they are released. You may be “free” from confinement, but you really aren’t free when you’re released.
There’s a societal pecking order: British ruling class, British civilian class, former inmates, and finally, the natives.
The British look down on everyone. The former inmates look down on the native tribes. If not for the New Zealand accents and geography, you could mistake the setting for the American West. Substitute Native Americans for the Aborigines, and it’s a similar lawless environment. It’s a time of civil unrest when the expression “raping and pillaging” is a daily reality and not a historical description.
Clare is an Irish ex-convict with a husband and a baby. In the first act of the film, Clare finds herself in need of a native guide to travel through this dangerous landscape to a larger town that is days away from her small community. She hires an aborigine named Billy to serve as her “tracker” who can facilitate her safe passage through the wilderness. Renegade tribesmen and bandits abound, and the two must count on each other to survive. Billy sees only Clare’s white European face; Clare sees only Billy’s black skin. They soon test the theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
While The Nightingale can be shockingly violent, it is not a horror film in the traditional sense.
It certainly explores the evil that men (and women) are capable of, but its horrors are grounded in humanity. There are no supernatural forces at work here. The violence and depravity flow from the lawlessness of the frontier and the subjugation of natives by an imperial force.
It’s a pleasure to watch the two leads warily confide in one another as something close to friendship begins to form. It’s not a cliche. This film is not Green Book in the Outback. As they share their experiences, they cease to be ignorant about the other’s world.
It’s change based on education. It’s understanding built on empathy. It’s a real evolution that unfolds before our eyes thanks to the strong performances and subtleties of an excellent screenplay.
The Nightingale is currently available on digital platforms and hits Blu-Ray on February 4th. If you can make it through the savagery of the first twenty minutes, your patience will be rewarded with a beautiful story of a friendship that develops under the most unusual circumstances.