A bleak, bone-splintering revenge thriller as lawless and unforgiving as the 19th-century Australian outback it’s set in, The Nightingale offers no kind of easy viewing for the dog days of summer.
Subtle is also not really the word for the sophomore effort by Brisbane-born filmmaker Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), but there’s a grim sort of catharsis in her frontier-feminist tale of Clare (Game of Thrones’ Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict being held in indefinite indentured servitude in the furthest reaches of circa-1825 Tasmania.
Though she’s long ago earned her parole, a swaggering British Army lieutenant named Hawkins (Sam Claflin) likes keeping her around to sing the old homeland songs for his men — and when he’s the mood, make use of her body, too.
He’s the one holding the long-overdue papers that will finally set her free to start a real life with her husband and baby daughter, so Clare tries her best to please her captor, or at least keep him placated. But when it all comes to a head one terrible night, she’s left with almost nothing, except the single-minded mission to make these men suffer for what they’ve taken from her.
That’s when The Nightingale becomes, in its own harrowing way, a road movie, and the story of an unlikely friendship too: Desperate to catch up with Hawkins as he makes his way to a distant outpost to lock in the promotion he believes he’s more than due, Clare hires an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (the fantastic Baykali Ganambarr).
Like her, Billy has spent most of his short life subject to the brutal whims of white men, though at first at least, he’s only reluctantly on board for the promise of a generous payout on the other side. But as they warily circle one another and begin to let some kind of trust in, it’s not hard to see them as the ragged, unsung heroes of a story in which colonialism isn’t just its own crime, it’s a convenient cover for the very worst of human nature.
At nearly 140 minutes, the narrative takes its time wending toward a final, inevitable confrontation, and the incidents that punctuate it can sometimes feel like singularly ugly stations of the cross to be marked off; a series of random man- and nature-made cruelties meted out without pity.
Claflin completely abandons the raffish Hugh Grant charm of roles in films like Me Before You for what seems like pure, unrelenting sociopathy; his casual sadism is appropriately chilling, if hardly nuanced. Kent also fumbles a little in the final act, over-gilding her multiple endings and adding sentiment where none is needed. But in its finest moments — particularly the raw, remarkable performances of Franciosi and Ganambarr — Nightingale sings. B