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It's 1825 somewhere in Tasmania, and Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict serves her sentence in the servitude of Hawkins (Sam Claflin), a weak, narcissistic British military man with aspirations of grandeur and promotion. Although Clare is married, Hawkins feels some level of romantic interest in her, and considers her his property. He calls her his songbird and nightingale and asks her to perform music for his men. Clare feels she has served her time and wants to be free to live as a free woman and fulfill her roles as wife and mother. If you remember how Goeth felt about Helen in Schindler's List or Edwin felt about Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, you will get a good picture.
To put this in context, remember this is the early colonial days for Australia/Tasmania. The men don't see many women. The country at this time is known for convicts, Aboriginal people, and military occupants. No one really wants to be there. If you are there, you are looking for a way to leave.
When Clare and her husband begin to push for her release and this leads to Hawkins being embarrassed in front of a superior, he lashes out and attacks them in their home, repeatedly assaulting Clare and destroying everyone she cares for. Although she was left for dead, Clare chooses to pursue Hawkins, who has departed with some colleagues and an Aboriginal guide through the bush to claim a job he was promised.
After seeking justice from the law and not getting it, Clare hires her own Aboriginal guide, Billy, to try and catch up with Hawkins and exact revenge. On her journey, she bonds with Billy, and the two of them form an alliance that binds them together.
When I first heard about this film, I was intrigued. Yet I dreaded watching it. For some time now, I have avoided anything that I knew included rape. I've seen rape on-screen many times now, and a certain point it felt intolerable. Yet The Nightingale felt like a movie worth seeing. Many have reduced the film by calling it a "rape-revenge" film, yet I don't feel this label fits. In standard rape-revenge films, the hero's world becomes smaller. All else fades around them as they become hyper-focused on getting revenge. Nothing else matters, and no one else matters. However, during the journey of The Nightingale, Clare's world expands. She becomes more aware of the suffering of others around her. Her search for inner peace begins to feel as just one piece of a place and time filled with suffering. Through her odyssey, she gains peace through her bonding with others. In standard rape-revenge, you leave the film feeling the depravity and hopelessness of mankind, yet the Nightingale doesn't end in that fashion.
The other big difference is in the way the camera treats the victims of abuse. The camera stays firmly on the victim's face, rather than linger on the body, exploiting the shame the victim is feeling. Jennifer Kent filmed these scenes with sensitivity and purpose. This article shares the work and effort Kent took in making the film and why she found it necessary to tell this story, despite discomfort it might give others.
There are many other things I could say about this film, but the other thing I want to highlight is the relationship that forms between Clare and Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). Initially, Clare allows the racist attitudes of white culture to form how she views Billy. She keeps a rifle on him because she believes him to be a cannibal. She calls him "boy" and orders him about. As the trip progresses, she is forced to reconsider her attitude and realizes she, like Hawkins, is being used as an instrument of oppression against Billy. Their bond is created from mutual need and respect. Their bonding is slow, deep, and quite moving.
Although The Nightingale is difficult to watch, I found it worthwhile and memorable. However, don't go into it looking for a blood-fest, horror movie, or rape-revenge story. It has more in common with The Revenant than I Spit on Your Grave.