A step up in scope for Kent after The Babadook, The Nightingale is a brutal, bloody and honest look into the life of woman and Aboriginal People during a period in Australia's history that many seem to forget, all while telling an amazing story.
Based somewhere around the 1830's, Clare is an Irish convict living in Tasmania (Van Diemen's Land as it was known), now able to live a life out of physical chains, though this alleged freedom was made possible by a leftenant with ulterior motives. Her character begins as an innocent woman, but once this man causes tragedy to strike in an ruthless way, her attitude changes. Upset and enraged, she becomes hell bent on chasing the officer responsible. However, he has already left the village, using an Aboriginal tracker to lead his group north towards a promised promotion.
Clare also decides to enlist the help of a tracker, only after others in the community find it apparent that no words can stop her from leaving. An unfortunate but necessary and true trope of films of this nature, the tracker, Billy, is of course an Aboriginal person. The two begin to follow the movements of the officer's group. Their journey is long and fraught with as much emotional torture as there is physical.
The two at first share a very unstable bond, a partnership of sorts that forms the centrepiece of the film; both how their relationship changes over time but also how Billy and Clare change and become new people. Clare is haunted by nightmares during the trek, a reflection of what has happened to her before she left, the reason for her trip of vengeance, and ultimately what she plans to do herself.
The promise of another Schilling at the end of the journey begins to leave Billy's mind as he starts to care about Clare's well being. What started as an extremely hostile mutual agreement morphs as the characters learn more about each other. All this and more demonstrate how two people from different worlds can understand each other as best they can. Their shared hatred towards the English doesn't hurt in this regard, one thing that they have in common as these 'settlers' wreaked havoc in both their lives.
Despite the ruthless violence and images that are peppered throughout, with some scenes hard to watch, this is ultimately about grasping onto hope when the way forward seems impassable. To continue pushing forward despite the odds. The final act drives this idea further and ends on a note that at first seems underwhelming, until the meaning behind it becomes apparent. It then takes on much more power.
A trained singer, all the traditional Irish songs sung by Aisling Franciosis as Clare were recorded live. Her singing adds more to a role take that takes her through what feels like the extremity of every human emotion possible. With her face featuring in many close ups, she couldn't have been more believable. A perfect choice - Kent's determination to use an Irish actress in this independent Australian film was certainly worth the effort.
In his first acting role (though a performer of Aboriginal dance), Baykali Ganambarr won the 'Marcello Mastroianni' Award for Best Young Actor award at Venice, and for good reason. His portrayal of Billy goes hand in hand with Aisling's performance. The chemistry that rises and dips as they journey forward is a testament to Baykali and Aisling's skills. Baykali is seemingly a born actor, though in a Q&A after the film, he was extremely modest and when that exact question was put to him, he didn't know what to say, other that that he hope to act again. This is a man who, if he decides to, could be the next David Gulpilil, who was the first major Aboriginal actor to feature in major Australian films.
An incredibly moving film that could be labelled as an epic adventure, Jennifer Kent has created a near flawless film that emotionally hits hard.