The Nightingale Is a Satisfying, but Rote, Revenge Story

Clare (Aisling Franciosi) traverses the Australian wilderness for revenge.
Clare (Aisling Franciosi) traverses the Australian wilderness for revenge. COURTESY OF IFC FILMS

The Nightingale

Written and directed by Jennifer Kent. Starring Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr and Sam Claflin. Opens Friday, August 16, at the Landmark Tivoli Theatre.

The revenge story has been central to Western storytelling (that's "Western" as in European/American civilization since the Roman empire, not cowboys and cattle rustlers and the lone prairie, although it's certainly a central feature of the latter as well) for so long that there's almost nothing we expect in the way of variation or embellishment. Somebody does the hero or heroine wrong. After overcoming a few obstacles, the hero tracks them down and (usually) gets even.

Jennifer Kent's second feature The Nightingale (her first was the 2014 horror film The Babadook) takes place in the early nineteenth century on the rugged Australian island known as Van Diemen's Land (now known as Tasmania), where Great Britain set up a military outpost to defend its claim on the territory. Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is a young Irish woman living in servitude with her husband and baby and subjected to unwelcome advances from a boorish British officer. After a brutal assault and the death of her family at the hands of British soldiers (I'll spare readers the details and merely note that the film takes an excruciating thirty minutes to reach this point), Clare takes off in pursuit, recruiting an Aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to guide her through the wilderness.

What follows, as you've probably guessed, is a streamlined version of the basic revenge plot. The obstacles are few and the entire film takes place within a few days. There are few surprises, no digressions on the finer points of vengeance and no cathartic self discovery. Clare and Billy follow the soldiers, facing a few other threats along the way. The journey is relentlessly arduous, but no hardship is too small for Kent to pass up. She shows every fall, every scrape. When Clare discovers that leeches have covered her legs, the film registers her horror but doesn't bother to stop and show her removing them. The Nightingale is a film about struggle, a story of discomfort and pain. Every ordeal is just an interruption, a set of obstacles to be overcome before the inevitable confrontation.

But inevitability doesn't diminish The Nightingale's effectiveness as a tale of retribution. Franciosi is admirably determined as the vengeful Clare, and Ganambarr brings charm and depth to a role which could easily have turned into a patronizing stereotype. The British soldiers are perhaps a bit predictably rendered as pompous and crass, but this is not the sort of story in which empathy for the villains is required or respected. They have their place and make no more of a claim on the viewer's emotions than they deserve. (Though I wish that Kent had managed to avoid the movie cliché which demands that any time vengeance is sought against multiple bad guys, one of them must be found while engaged in some form of sexual activity).

Kent is a careful, methodical filmmaker; you get the impression that she meticulously planned out every second of The Nightingale on storyboards and wouldn't allow so much as an eyebrow twitch to diverge from her plans. Her single-mindedness doesn't leave much room for spontaneity and even limits the cast from responding to each other naturally, but it serves the formulaic pleasures of the revenge plot well. The film moves along with the dogged determination of Clare herself. Kent sets her goals, stages them carefully and for the most part, achieves what she came to do. The Nightingale doesn't break any new ground creatively, but it's a well-crafted revenge tale that limits its scope and sticks to its guns.

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