There are plenty of rage-driven “rape and revenge” films that strive to show how the human condition is affected when shaken to its core. Although most popular in the 1970s, the exploitative subgenre is still as controversial today as it was when films like I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left were banned and censored to varying degrees 40 years ago.
The Nightingale won’t be immune to the same criticism from moviegoers who find the Australian film excessively cruel. During a screening at the Sydney Film Festival last month, dozens of people reportedly walked out of the theater because of the violent scenes depicting rape and murder. The Nightingale isn’t a comfortable watch to say the least, but it does strike a nerve in a visceral way.
Set in 1825 in Tasmania, off the south coast of Australia, The Nightingale tells the story of Clare Carroll (Aisling Franciosi), a convicted 21-year-old Irishwoman who lives at an outpost under the authority of a British lieutenant, Hawkins (Sam Claflin), during the empire’s colonization of the territory.
Even after completing her seven-year sentence, Hawkins refuses to release her from his control, even though she’s married and raising an infant while in his custody. The lieutenant and two of his soldiers, Ruse and Jago (Damon Herriman and Harry Greenwood), devastate her life during a nightmarish segment that’s likely to induce anger in viewers who are unable to fathom the evil acts on display. While difficult to watch, these particular scenes — warning: there are more than one — are necessary to tell the story.
The tragic event pushes Clare to a stage of blinding wrath, and she sets out to hunt down Hawkins, Ruse and Jago through the dangerous Australian wilderness after they leave for another post. To give herself a fighting chance of surviving the trek, she hires Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal tracker who has also seen his fair share of death at the hands of the men he calls the “white devils.”
Written and directed by Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent, who terrorized parents worldwide with her 2014 debut film The Babadook, the gothic tale of revenge is devastatingly grim and emotionally jarring. Moviegoers anticipating some level of catharsis — frequently offered in similar vengeance films — might be disappointed with the script’s unpredictability and slow-burn storytelling. But as moviegoers witnessed in The Babadook, Kent isn’t interested in genre mechanics.
With The Nightingale, she has created something that dismisses archetypes and relies on brutal history lessons to expose man’s perpetually destructive nature.