Sundance Film Review – The Nightingale (2019)
The Babadook is one of my favorite horror movies ever made. What Jennifer Kent accomplished in that movie is nothing short of miraculous, so much so that it continues to own an area of brain, seeping into my subconscious more and more over the years. Suffice it to say that I was anxiously awaited her next movie after seeing it, and I couldn’t have been more excited to see The Nightingale.
Unfortunately, Kent’s sophomore effort left me a bit cold, even if it was impeccably photographed.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Jennifer Kent
Written By: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie, Magnolia Maymuru, and Michael Sheasby
As a caregiver to local squadron of the British army, Clare is bound to serve these men as part of her service as a convict, though Hawkins (Claflin) is making that duty far more difficult than necessary as he refuses to free Clare from service long after her punishment is up.
After an extremely unpleasant and horrible event, Clare goes out on the hunt for Hawkins, who has left the area to meet up with higher ranking officials about his own rank. She enlists the help of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Ganambarr) along the way, but they’ll have to reconcile their own differences before Clare can settle everything with Hawkins once and for all.
I Love Jennifer Kent and You Should Too
Jennifer Kent impressed many far before The Babadook ever came to theaters. The Aussie started mostly as an actor, earning a role in the main cast of Murder Call as well as smaller roles in other TV shows. (She even had a small part in Babe: Pig in the City.)
But over time, Kent lost interest in acting, and made her way into the directing world. She detested the idea of going to film school, and she said as much in a letter that she wrote to none other than Lars Von Trier, who later allowed Kent to work with him on Dogville. She would go on to make her first short soon after.
Now that The Babadook has become a favorite among genre enthusiasts, Kent is becoming a strong voice in the industry, and I could not be happier for her.
The Nightingale is Suitably Brutal
I won’t beat around the bush: The Nightingale is shockingly brutal and upsetting. There’s always one or two films that come out of the festival circuit with many reports of viewers fainting, getting sick, or even walk out of the theater in pure disgust, and I think it’s safe to say that The Nightingale is 2019’s version of such a film.
While it’s not a horror film as many other movies that have received newsworthy responses, it’s undeniably vicious. Kent refuses to cut away or hold the audience’s hand in any way, shape, or form. And as a result, the first act of The Nightingale is near perfect in its execution. It sets up the movie perfectly with one of the most painful-to-watch scenes of recent memory. Seriously, it’s rough.
This underpinning of brutality — or maybe an edifice of it since you literally cannot miss the savagery — is constant throughout the film, making The Nightingale one of the more difficult movies to sit through. (For many, I imagine that one viewing will be enough.) Yet Kent never sensationalizes the violence. She actually does the opposite by making it as repugnant as possible. For the material in the film, I found this cruelty to be unbelievably effective, especially in its first act which still makes me uncomfortable to this day.
A Walk in the Woods
But then as we begin this revenge tour of sorts for the lead character, I found that The Nightingale became incredibly straightforward and bland, ultimately becoming an incredibly well-produced version of the same story we’ve seen countless times before. The first act is unquestionably powerful and worthwhile, but the film then falls into a lull from which it never gets out of. We follow two packs of characters through the woods for what feels like an eternity, which strips The Nightingale of much of its weight and purpose. It almost feels as if the movie knows this, so it tosses in a few nightmare sequences which are essentially non sequiturs.
With all the violence and hardship that these characters handle, it all began to feel like an unnecessary viewing experience as the film moves aimlessly from point to point. All the characters begin to feel like they were repurposed from other, more refined movies, and I grew tired of it all rather quickly.
The Film Falls Back on Some Rather Unpleasant Screenwriting Tropes
Most people would agree that there was a serious attempt made by this movie to comment on the violence of past generations, with a clear on eye on highlighting the horrors that Aboriginal people incurred years ago. I truly appreciate the attempt at commentary, but I simply couldn’t shake one fatal flaw in the movie’s calculus: Billy, the main Aboriginal character played by Baykali Ganambarr, is the classic magical black man trope.
I’ve been thinking about this piece of the movie for a while now. Maybe I’m missing something — or there are some deeper complexities to this discussion that I’m brushing over — but Billy essentially acts as a Deus Ex Machina for Clare over and over again, to the point where his omniscience overtakes Clare’s emotional arc. (And I could never fully buy into Billy’s arc because of the tropes involved in his story.) I think that in the process of making a historical statement, Jennifer Kent lost sight of the structural function of this character.
I’m interested to hear other side of this discussion, and perhaps that will cause a change in my tone down the line. But for now, this entire piece of The Nightingale rang false.
I have no doubt that Jennifer Kent is a great auteur with plenty to say. (You can count on me being first in line to see her next film.) She gets some amazing performances out of this cast, so much so that I finally understand why Sam Claflin is a thing in Hollywood. Her sense of tension and visual storytelling is wonderful and rough. As far as Kent’s eye for visuals and feeling goes, I have no quarrels.
All of my problems in the film stem from The Nightingale‘s writing, which after a solid first act turns into a very standard revenge thriller with some troubling characterizations. The fact is that we’ve seen this movie far too many times in the past. It’s absolutely well-filmed and well-acted, but I struggle to take anything insightful away from The Nightingale in the end, no matter how hard it tried.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on The Nightingale? Comment down below!
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