Venice 2018: Jennifer Kent's 'The Nightingale' is a Phenomenal Film
by Alex Billington
September 6, 2018
It fills me with so much energy and excitement and enthusiasm when I watch an incredible film. Sometimes you can tell from the first few minutes that a film is going to be amazing. There's just something about the filmmaking and opening scenes that shows how massively talented and in control the filmmaker is, and as the rest of the film plays out, it only gets better and better. Jennifer Kent's new film The Nightingale is phenomenal, one of the best films of the year. I don't even think the word "masterpiece" can do it justice, it's such a riveting, enlivening, extraordinary cinematic creation that it's worthy of more rigorous lingo and more thorough praise. I loved every last second of it — and I mean LOVED it — and the film features two of my favorite performances of the year. It's also an important, affecting film that addresses racism and sexism head on, showing that we haven't changed much in 200 years but we can - and will - through compassion.
Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent's first feature was The Babadook, a one-of-a-kind horror film that has earned a global following. Her second feature is The Nightingale, a story set in 1825 about a young woman living in Tasmania - which at the time was still a prison colony island for England. The only people living there were soldiers sent from England and a few other immigrants, various prisoners from England (and its colonies), and the aboriginal people (who had been there all along anyway). The original colonists from England arrived and enslaved the aboriginals, treating them horribly and murdering them whenever they felt like. The story in the film focuses on a young Irish woman named Clare who has spent the last three years working for soldiers as punishment for her petty crimes. She's waiting for a letter from the Lieutenant so she can go home with her husband and baby, but he stubbornly, arrogantly refuses to give it to her. And he treats her horribly as well. That's just where things start setting up the stakes for what's about to happen.
After a violent event changes everything, she sets off to track him through the Bush and exact her revenge. She decides to take an aboriginal "boy" named Billy as her tracker/guide, and although she treats him very poorly at the start, they bond over their violent treatment and slowly begin to respect each other. These two performances are extraordinary - two of the best of the year. Aisling Franciosi plays Clare, and Baykali Ganambarr plays Billy, whose aboriginal nickname means blackbird. There's a bit of humor that provides some meaningful levity to this otherwise bleak story, and endears us to both of these characters. Even Sam Claflin, who plays the despicable bastard antagonist character Hawkins, is challenging himself (against the lovable lead characters he has played in previous films) more than ever before by being so evil but so good at pretending he's not. Each and every performance in the film is nuanced, and beautiful, and unforgettable.
Part of what makes Jennifer Kent so talented as a filmmaker is her ability to balance and manage a number of different characters so perfectly as the story progresses. They each grow and evolve and change as the story goes on, yet they're also complete human beings, carefully crafted by Kent and perfectly embodied by the various actors. It's not just Clare and Billy and Hawkins, but another aboriginal tracker and a young boy that joins them named Eddie, played by Charlie Shotwell, and a few others who are involved. And there's little details within each character that help round them out. For example, Clare just had a baby, and after running off she is still producing milk but there is no baby to drink it, so her breasts are hurting and leaking. So many other filmmakers might've forgotten this detail or never address it, but it's a minor thing that gets addressed in a scene when she's in the Bush. One example of the many little things that are worked naturally into the film. This just shows how smart Kent is at understanding characters both physically and mentally.
Everything about The Nightingale is remarkable but it's the way she tells this story of sexism and racism and violence so compassionately and so vividly that makes it phenomenal. It's such powerful, and essential storytelling, taking us back to a time 200 years ago, yet providing characters and situations that we can connect to and understand. Everything else about it works in the service of the storytelling, but also has a unique feel to it that truly defines this as "a Jennifer Kent film." The cinematography is gorgeous, shot in the Academy 4:3 aspect ratio, yet framed so skillfully with an eye on filling th e frame. It's not bright or colorful, but every shot is still exquisite. The sound design is subtle but adds so much to the experience. The score is also subtle, but makes so much of a difference. This is one of those films where everything works in perfect harmony to support the story being told, not overwhelm or distract from the characters and what's going on.
There's only so much I can say here without repeating myself and going back to stating again and again how much I love everything about this film. I love the way the story is presented, I love the way it takes its time to develop the characters and let's us get to know them. I love how confident and focused Jennifer Kent is, she knows exactly the story she is telling and how to tell it so powerfully. I love the interaction between Clare and Billy, and I love how they learn to appreciate each other over time. I love how singing is used by both characters as their most intimate form of personal expression. I love the final scenes. I love how the story kept going down different paths, taking unexpected turns, yet never straying too far off course. This film is exceptional and significant, and I can't wait for everyone else to see it. All hail Jennifer Kent! She is one of the most talented filmmakers working today, and this film is going to be heralded as one of her best.
Alex's Venice 2018 Rating: 10 out of 10
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