I’ve recently moved from the highly urbanised inner-city of Sydney to regional Australia, and this change of scenery makes Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale all the more real for me.
Her film is set in 1825, in Tasmania, home to Indigenous Australians for tens of thousands of years, and British settlers for just 20, with a small expeditionary force landing in 1803 and the first convict ships to arrive directly from England to stock the island making land in 1817. By 1825, the white population had slowly established themselves with roads, industry and Anglo cultural practices like horse racing and church services taking place.
In 1928 in the midst of the “Black War” dozens of Aborigines were killed in the Cape Grim massacre, and by 1835, almost all the original native inhabitants of Tasmania had been “removed”.
In The Nightingale, young Irish convict woman, Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is married to Aidan (Michael Sheasby), with an infant child and has served her 7 year sentence, but her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) refuses to sign the papers that would officially grant her the freedom she is legally entitled to.
Instead, he keeps her as his plaything, making her sing (hence The Nightingale) and forces himself upon her with alarming regularity. When Aidan discovers the extent of Hawkins misuse of power he reacts without thinking, bringing a shocking and brutal crime upon his family.
With the authorities disinclined to prosecute the Lieutenant, Clare takes matters into her own hands, enlisting proud young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her pursue Hawkins through the rugged Tasmanian bush on a mission to seek revenge.
Hawkins, meanwhile is hell-bent on securing a promotion he has been denied, thanks in no small part to his poor behaviour and mediocre leadership skills, and has set course for Launceston, trekking through the wilderness with his own tracker and small band of soldiers including a young white lad.
This is a story about sexual assault, power and rage, class and revenge, resilience and hope. It punches you in the face and gut with a double knockout blow, and puts a grip on you that won’t let go.
I can’t recall another film that is anything like it, and the explicit violence won’t be to everyone’s taste, as some scenes are truly shocking. But as a lesson in the brutal history of the colonisation of Australia by Europeans, and as a piece of Australian cinema, The Nightingale is “A Staggering Triumph.”