Cast: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman
Director: Jennifer Kent
There are a couple of different ways you can summarize The Nightingale, but the easiest is one simple phrase; female-led John Wick. Australia really went all out this year by distributing this in the US and showed us that their directors can hang with the best of ours on a yearly basis. I don’t know a whole lot about Australian history since the Black War aren’t taught in the American school system, but what I learned from the 136 minutes of The Nightingale is that it was a brutish and awful time to be in Australia. A heinous tale that becomes one woman’s quest for justice, The Nightingale isn’t just one of the best movies from outside the US, it’s one of the best movies of the year period.
The film follows Clare Carroll (Franciosi), an Irish convict working in Australia until her time served is complete. After British Lieutenant Hawkins (Claflin) and some of his troops rape Clare and kill her husband and baby, Clare wants revenge no matter the cost. Teaming up with an Aboriginal guide named Billy (Ganambarr), the two head out into the dangerous Australian bush seeking the freedom they both deserve. Some movies are built up by the protagonist and their mission, but the top marks of The Nightingale have to belong to Claflin. I don’t often see an antagonist that legitimately has no redeeming qualities, but everything Hawkins does in this movie is stomach-turning. This is a man who thinks exclusively about himself and has no regard for anyone else, especially the Irish or Aboriginals, and it takes an immense amount of talent to be that hateable for the entire movie. I haven’t seen Claflin in anything this malevolent in his career, so I applaud his ability to lean into the role and accept the script as reality. Outside of Claflin though, Franciosi presents a strong, multi-dimensional female protagonist with a level of tenacity and focus we rarely see. She’s almost the perfect foil character for Hawkins because both of them have that same level of determination, but they are motivated by very different factors. While Claflin and Franciosi are phenomenal in their roles, the racial elements of the Black War help add another level of complexity and emotional attachment to the characters. In the beginning, there’s a clear hierarchy of British at the top, Irish prisoners in the middle, and Aborigines as the enemy. Over the course of the plot, the relationship between Clare and Billy shows just how evil British colonization was and the amount of people whose lives were ripped apart by it. If you’re an outsider looking in like me, The Nightingale is absolutely worth the watch not just for a filmmaking experience, but as a dramatized history lesson to learn more about a war you probably know little about. Once again showing characters overcome their own flaws and working towards a common goal is essential to good storytelling, and it looks as though Kent has another incredible movie on her hands after The Babadook.
Overall, I went into The Nightingale completely blind, and it has to be one of the most compelling movies of the year. From the sheer horror of Clare’s initial assault, to the rage she has to motivate her to the end of the movie, The Nightingale accomplished almost everything it sets out and will stand out as something you remember long after you’re done watching it. I hope these budding international stars start to make their way over to the US, because after watching them in The Nightingale, they could easily be major players in any mainstream American production.
Overall Score: 9/10