Grappling with The Nightingale
This piece started as a quickly jotted down review intended to Letterboxd. But once I started jotting, I just kept going. And it evolved into something that I don’t think is quite a review (though elements of that remain), but more an attempt to work through my feelings of a film that greatly challenged me, but that also has creative shortcomings. One that I just wasn’t sure what I thought about it. This also evolved over the course of a few edits from a quite personal exploration of my feelings (that version of the piece probably fitted better with the title) to where it ended up which is more of a consideration of how the film approaches colonialism and it as an example of genre.
Just a few content warnings for this piece, the film depicts sexual assault and pretty extreme violence (including against a baby) and I discuss those elements below.
‘Colonisation is a brutal process, one in which everyone involved is debased.’ – Larissa Behrendt on The Nightingale
The first 30 minutes of The Nightingale are nigh on unwatchable. There’s a sense over this period that the film almost goes a little too far. But as Sam Langford pointed out in their astute analysis of the film on Junkee, the overwhelming nature is really the point and speaks to what the film is trying to say about colonialism generally, and specifically in Tasmania. Over this initial half hour of the film, the film shows the main character Clare being viciously sexually assaulted twice and then in a shocking punctuation point, her baby is murdered in front of her. There are different dimensions to both of the assault scenes. The first is all anger. A deliberate assault in which Sam Clafin’s Hawkins lords his power over Clare in a number of ways, culminating in the vicious physicality of the assault. The second assault is characterised by the methodical enjoyment. Preening over the details as a way to torture Clare’s husband Aidan, who is in the room with her. The sounds of sniggering intermingled with a baby’s crying and a husband’s wailing. Perhaps one aspect of that ‘too far’ thought is the way that we are situated inside the cramped room whilst rape and infanticide are being committed. The effect is not to make one feel complicit, though there are definitely hints of that as Clare looks straight as the camera during the second assault. It’s more being too close to these acts. Being held and forced to watch, as if looking away will be a betrayal of some sort.
“Whitefella way is shit way” – Billy
There is a sense that what Kent is attempting to sketch with the film is a picture of colonialism in its numerous violent manifestations. Run of the mill military bullying, the war being raged against the indigenous population, the sexual assault, the rampant misogyny. All are manifestations of colonialist control. It’s a film concerned with power dynamics, and it is not always Clare that is the victim. The overall racial prejudice of the time is starkly rendered through lynching and horrific language. But the writing of Billy, Clare’s tracker and the main indigenous character is at times lacking. The framing and arc of their relationship is ham fisted. At times their dynamic takes on a borderline ‘buddy’ dynamic in terms of the beats and way it evolves in a way that feels somewhat rote. They fight, they need each other at times, they let each other down, they hold each other up and they eventually deeply connect. Though there is a certain poignancy to elements of their relationship toward the end – particularly when Billy heals Clare (using methods that she had shortly before dismissed as “hocus pocus”). And that poignant payoff masks some of the issues of how the duo is written for the most part. At times (though not always, and especially on first viewing) Billy feels like a plot device rather than a fully formed character and agent in the film. There are also instances when the two also situated as equal victims of the colonialist crusade in a way that feels uncomfortable (without diminishing Clare’s personal ordeal in the film). As they sit by a fire, Clare pits her oppression as an Irishwoman against that of Billy. Coming in the midst of a journey through a stolen land, where black bodies have been seen hung from trees and claiming that you’ve “civilised the land, got rid of the blacks” is the main pitch to your commander when trying to score a promotion. Clare pushes this sense of being wronged so far that all Billy can exasperate is “bloody white people”.
‘The woods in The Nightingale are a dystopian maze of mayhem and terror’ – Inkoo Kang on The Nightingale
One thing often missed in considerations of the film is just how neatly it fits in the horror genre. Both as a period rape revenge film (with much of the structural template of that subgenre embraced), as nature horror and also in the use of dreams, that definitely play and are presented as supernatural, even if that is not the intended literal interpretation. Even in this film Kent shows that her strongest attributes are as a horror director. The film crafts a pit of dread and unease in the stomachs of its viewers that lasts the entire run time of the film. And even if the film is not totally immersed in the genre at all times, that’s an attribute that sits squarely at the heart of so much horror. Many films can achieve this for a short period, often through a sensory assault. But here there is a sustained intentionally oppressive atmosphere for the viewer. This is achieved in a number of ways. There is a share of that sensory assault, but also the vulnerability of Clare situated throughout in almost purely masculine environments, the revenge dynamic and perhaps most successfully the natural environment the characters find themselves enveloped by. Horrifying masses in the fog, the dead stalking through the forest, dreams springing to life, nightmares that haunt and invade, awakening at one’s lowest point cradled, dwarfed and awed by a fallen tree and attempts to escape the physical. All of these intermingle and dictate the middle act of the film (and well into the third act too) in a labyrinthine way. Nature it seems is both a oppressor and a potential avenue of escape – on more than one occasion the point of view of a character looks to the sky as they are assaulted, perhaps to the ‘heavens’, perhaps as a longing to be freed from their physical pain.
The morning after her second violent assault and the murder of her family, The Nightingale threatens to be a truly great rape revenge film, mainly through Aisling Franciosi’s performance as Clare. Franciosi’s face is pure spite, hate, anger and rage. She marches, motivated through the landscape full of incendiary action. For better or worse however the film does not maintain this fiery headlong march into action, preferring to delve into the reality of travelling through inland Tasmania at the time and that broader view of colonialism. Having said that, Kent does circle back to the beats of the subgenre a couple of times, most notably when Clare and Billy catch up with the first of the men she is hunting. Clare methodically stalks this already wounded man, via horseback and then on foot, eventually landing on top of him and stabbing the living fuck out of him over and over again, the camera lingering on her blood-splattered face. A clear moment of catharsis for the character and one enhanced by the shock of how it is portrayed for the audience.
At the risk of not considering the film as it was made, it’s interesting to ponder if it would have felt a more coherent vision if it more often leant into the simple generic tropes and provided a similarly simple sense of catharsis and release. As it is The Nightingale is messy, uneven and brutal and perhaps all the more worthy because of all that. A more straightforward horror film wouldn’t have given the multifaceted look at colonialism that Kent attempts and so often succeeds in bringing to the screen. As it is, it is Billy’s proclamation “I’m still here you bastards and I’m not going anywhere” delivered both as a personal statement and a broader claim, that probably lingers longest in the mind.
Living in Canberra Australia, with the pandemic as under control as pretty much anywhere in the world, a while back I returned to the cinema for the first time. I was fully intending to record an episode of Driving Home From the Cinema Reviews on this one. Instead, the approach to familiar material inspired me to write a review to a new release for the first time in forever. In the paragraph below starting ‘the result of all this’ I go into detail that may approach spoiler territory. But I don’t think in a way that will affect the experience for anyone. Just a heads up if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing.
Sketching out the plot of Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth (2019) – terminally ill teen falls in with slightly older drug dealer much to the chagrin of her parents – calls to mind certain expectations. But this film is barely concerned with the narrative beats one would expect, the nature of the illness, or for most of the run-time, even the emotions generated by it all. Rather it is at its best when working at the level of change and emotion. It moves in tones and notes that range from the subtle to the euphoric. Dance, connection, unexpected presences in one’s life (that are also unwanted by others) that challenge and delight. At times this is all driven by the use of music as it’s used to fill the aural space, simultaneously disorienting and focusing. The chance meeting of the ill Milla and Moses at a train station leads to a deep, doomed connection. The performances from Eliza Scanlen as Milla and Toby Wallace as Moses are strikingly unaffected. Wallace in particular brings a distinctly ragamuffiny energy and charm to a role that could feel rote in a lesser film. Credit for this belongs equally to the inquisitive scripting of his character and the performance. Similarly the relationship between the two of them is nicely complex for a teen focussed film, having its ups and downs, but not those we would expect – driven by Moses’ erraticism and desire for drugs to sell; and Milla’s illness, yearning and self-sufficiency.
The result of all this is that when Murphy does choose to engage with the stark emotions involved in the illness and death of a teenager it crushes. The filmmakers have somehow crafted it all without us noticing and all of a sudden the full force of what this means is nakedly, starkly real. This is done in a couple of scenes. First, we find out from Moses that Milla is dead. The scene then splits in two and Murphy cuts between them with the characters are paired up in the opposite way to what one would expect – again the film subverting the norm of these kinds of experiences. It is Milla’s father who rushes to her bed and lies with her body, overcome with grief. Then in the other strand of the scnee, Moses is paired off with Milla’s mum Anna (an amazing Essie Davis), the unapproving adversary. The realisation here for Anna is twofold – that Moses has been the most important person in her daughter’s final weeks and that she is gone. Murphy chooses not to end the film there. The next scene, that closes the film, takes place on a beach. Most of the characters from the film are there. And during that scene, coming when it was apparent to them all that Milla would soon die, she simply, gently asks her dad to look after Moses. The reaction from Ben Mendelsohn is utterly heartbreaking. It is this request that has brought into stark clarity for him what the near future holds for him and his daughter. This final piece of planning, the most important request she can fathom. As Mendelsohn has grown into his fame and found adulation worldwide, he has also grown into somewhat of a meme, with the emphasis on the concept of ‘full Mendo’ being ubiquitous. But it is here, in a piece of acting as far from ‘full Mendo’ as you can imagine, that he delivers his best work ever. The reaction is so well done that it cracked something deep inside me as a viewer. The ache of this father. They symbolic weight of his daughter’s final request.
Verdict: With its interesting, non-narrative approach to familiar material, Babyteeth surprises without feeling like that is what it is aiming for. The approach to death and emotion feels radical, simply because it is thoughtful and considered. And the closing sequences made me feel so so much, so deeply, in the way that only the most affecting of film can. Longneck of Melbourne Bitter