Sundance 2019 Review: The Nightingale Is Frustratingly Gratuitous

The biggest positive about The Nightingale happens at the very beginning of the film. Our main character, Clare, is singing a tune for a bunch of British soldiers before the title card is revealed. Because of the film’s title and how Clare sings a lovely tune, it seems like we’re in for a rather light film. That is until things quickly turn on a dime and Claire becomes subjected to a gang rape while her family gets killed off. Already, The Nightingale becomes a task to sit through because of its graphic nature. The film even nearly falters because of its great emphasis on gratuitous violence. However, there are still some high points to be found.

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Aside from the brilliantly deceptive opening sequence, The Nightingale boasts a killer breakthrough performance from newcomer Aisling Franciosi. As Clare, an Irish convict who seeks revenge against Hawkins (Sam Claflin), the British officer who murdered her family, Franciosi is all fire and rage. Her flawless performance as a woman out for blood provides shades of Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth and fingers crossed that she has a similar breakthrough.

Another actor who impresses is Baykali Ganambarr who plays Billy, an Aboriginal tracker that aids Clare on her quest. Ganambarr manages to incorporate instances of sly humor without losing sight of the film’s seriousness. Then there’s Sam Claflin who gives an amazing portrait of hideous toxic masculinity that comes in the form of sinister soldier Hawkins. It’s easily the best performance he’s ever given.

Having a woman and a person of color taking a stand against chauvinistic white males allows the film to make a political stance in a less blatant manner. As a result of its political subtext, The Nightingale has another positive besides its opening sequences and the central performances. However, the positives nearly end there.

Despite the film having such a strong voice, its reliance on shock value nearly drags it down. For instance, there’s the killing of children and also, its constant depiction of rape. The movie begins with a vicious gang rape and an Aboriginal woman becomes introduced on screen later in the film only for her to get kidnapped and raped. The woman isn’t a developed character. Just a cipher or device only brought onto the screen to get violated.

Here’s the thing. It becomes evident from the get-go that these British soldiers are the scum of the Earth. They’re racist, misogynist scum, and admittedly, a good way to show how despicable they are is to display their hideous behavior. However, the filmmakers didn’t need to go overboard by introducing a character whose only purpose on screen is to be sexually abused. The scene where Clare gets gang raped is difficult enough as it is.

In conclusion, The Nightingale features well-orchestrated political undertones and tremendous leading performances from Aisling Franciosi and Baykali Ganambarr. However, it still succumbs to its unfortunate need to be as violent and repulsive as possible. Compared to Jennifer Kent’s previous film, The Babadook, this one was pretty disappointing and also, it is definitely not for the faint of heart.

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Matthew St.Clair

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