The Nightingale is a brutal film set in colonial Australia. It follows an indentured servant on a quest for revenge against the British soldier who destroyed her life.
One of the fun parts of the end of a year is the fact that the good movies that were released early in the year make their way to streaming. We recently covered Little Woods arriving on Hulu last month, and this past week The Nightingale joined it.
Coming in at no. 86 (currently) on Rotten Tomatoes running list of the best movies of 2019, The Nightingale is a movie about the violence of colonialism and revenge, set in Colonial Australia. It is a brutal movie at times, and beautiful at others and is one of the most honest depictions of that period that I may have seen. We may not enjoy seeing or hearing a lot of what happens in The Nightingale but it pales in comparison to the reality of the times.
Within the first 30 minutes, you will be completely disgusted and may not want to continue watching the movie. Things don’t get much better from there in terms of the brutality but the need for the protagonist to get her revenge was enough to help me endure.
Aisling Franciosi (The Fall, Game of Thrones) plays Clare, an Irish indentured servant who has everything taken from her by a British soldier. Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games series) plays the brutal soldier, Hawkins, and the face of colonialism in this film.
When Clare sets out on her journey for revenge, she has to enlist the help of an Aboriginal tracker. Baykali Ganambarr (The Furnace) makes his acting debut as Billy and it is his introduction that helps get the movie going in a more enjoyable direction. His character is by no means comedic relief, but the interactions he has with Clare help give the audience something to help them see through all of the blood.
Both Franciosi and Ganambarr give strong performances that make us feel the trauma they’ve faced. Billy has seen all of his people killed at the hands of the British, and that is one thing that he and Clare can relate to. However, while Clare is just an object to the British soldier, she still looks at Billy as less than her and this dynamic makes for a difficult partnership throughout most of the movie.
While I don’t want to spoil the movie, we have to be honest about what you’re getting into. I personally don’t enjoy a lot of gore and blood in my movies, and The Nightingale definitely has plenty of blood.
There is only one scene that gets bad in this regard, but it is a significant moment beyond the act that is being carried out, and I understand why director Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) went there. The rest of the bloodshed is moderate and simply serves to let you know the individual has been murdered. Guns weren’t quite as potent in those times.
There are some that are more sensitive to the murder of innocents, and The Nightingale does have this as well. There are multiple helpless individuals and minors that are killed in the film, and every one of them is difficult to take. The most sensitive death scene takes place within that first 30 minutes I warned of earlier, so if you are able to make it through that point, you should be fine the rest of the way.
The other aspect of violence that is heavily featured is rape. There are several acts of rape and sexual assault in this movie, and Kent definitely wants you to understand the depravity of these men. She spends a lot of time on the victims and the bystanders during these scenes to take some of the focus from the act itself and emphasize how it affects everyone involved. This film is not meant to go down easy.
For all of its bloodshed and violence, The Nightingale does manage to say a lot. The brutality of colonialism and its impact on the indigenous people of many nations does not get a hard look often in media.
Through Billy, we see what has been done to his people and what that has done to him as a young man. Through Clare, we see how that has affected her also, as the Irish were once one of the groups considered less-than. It is the prevalent theme in this movie and, while it’s not fun, it is important to see these stories being told
Violence against women is also at the forefront as mentioned above. Most of the women in this film are seen simply as objects to those in power. Clare faces several threats throughout the film in the way of men. Even Billy has to be considered a threat to her in this way, he has given her no real reason to fear him.
The Nightingale also tackles the idea of the violence being passed down to the next generation. Hawkins forces a young skittish soldier to partake in his brutality and later starts to groom a young boy as his murderous protegé. Both are willing to go along with it so as not to be seen as weak in the eyes of this powerful man.
If you consider yourself a history buff or someone who cares to know the hard stories of our past, The Nightingale should be a welcome addition. While it wasn’t always easy to watch, I am thankful for the opportunity to learn more about how things were in colonial Australia. I’m sure it is not incredibly different from how things were in America but all of the victims of that period should get to have their stories told. Though Billy was not the main character in the movie, his journey becomes nearly as important as Clare’s by the end.
If it helps to know, the movie does not end on a dark note and does leave you with a palette cleansing scene.
The Nightingale is currently streaming exclusively on Hulu.