Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

The Nightingale, or: Bloody White People

There’s nothing like a revenge film to make me grateful most infractions against me are fairly minor, and I can brush them off and continue on binge watching Netflix shows in my sweatpants. It just looks so tiring, doesn’t it? And in this case, trekking through the Tasmanian wilderness, getting eaten alive by leeches, catching and preparing roasted wallaby for dinner–it makes me want to simply forget and forgive. However, when the offenses you’ve experienced are rape, murder, denial of your freedom, and witnessing genocidal war, sometimes the path of vengeance is the route you have to take.

The Film:

The Nightingale

The Premise:

With the help of an Aboriginal guide, a young Irish convict in Tasmania seeks vengeance on the soldiers who destroyed her family.

The Ramble:

Set during the Black War, Irish convict Clare is just one of many living in and around violence in colonial Tasmania. She has carved out a difficult life for herself alongside husband Aidan and a young daughter even as she faces violence, rape, and the denial of her freedom from irredeemably awful Lieutenant Hawkins.

See, Clare’s sentence actually ended months ago; however, because Hawkins is unwilling to sign off on the paperwork that will recognize this fact, she is stuck in limbo. Instead, she is to continue cooking, cleaning, entertaining the troops with her lovely singing voice, and enduring sexual assault, with no end in sight.

a young woman lies in bed next to a baby

Surely something will happen to change Clare’s life for the better? Alas, no. The arrival of a superior officer is meant to signal Hawkins’ promotion to a northern post. But since Hawkins is a horrendous person and a less than inspiring leader, he is denied the promotion. Worse, the final mark against him seems to be the fistfight he and Aidan engage in after Hawkins refuses to sign off on Clare’s papers.

Blaming Clare and Aidan for his own failure to get the promotion, Hawkins pays a visit to their cottage with a couple of loyal soldiers. In an absolutely brutal scene, Clare loses her husband and daughter, is repeatedly assaulted, and left for dead. When she learns that Hawkins and a couple of men have headed north to apply for the promotion in person, Clare swears to track them down and seek revenge.

Clare recruits Aboriginal tracker Billy to help her find the soldiers. In order to persuade him, Clare offers Billy a shilling now and additional payment later, telling him the lie that she’s seeking a reunion with her husband, who is traveling with the group. Billy has become jaded from guiding white soldiers in the past, but he reluctantly agrees to help Clare.

a man in military uniform looks ahead in a forested area, with two men and a boy following close behind

Meanwhile, Hawkins has recruited several convicts to help him, along with Billy’s uncle to lead their party. One of the soldiers encounters Lowanna, an Aboriginal woman, abducting her and repeatedly raping her.

Truth be told, though Clare doesn’t commit acts of physical violence, she is quite contemptuous in her initial treatment of Billy. Though he is a knowledgeable guide, she disregards his advice, constantly calls him “boy,” and seems incapable of recognizing his own pain (i.e. murder of his family) at the hands of the English. In a scene I’m not super comfortable with, Clare tells Billy she’s Irish, not English, and therefore implicitly has nothing to do with the genocide happening all around her. Clare finally checks her attitude a bit, but only after Billy fucking saves her from drowning when she attempts to cross a river he literally just told her not to cross because of the strong current.

Shortly before Clare and Billy catch up with Hawkins, the soldiers face a group of Aboriginal trackers attempting to reunite with Lowanna. The soldier who killed Clare’s baby is injured by a spear, and limps away. When Clare tracks him down, it becomes clear her mission isn’t the innocent goal of finding her husband as she brutally shoots, stabs, and beats the man to death. I’m not saying I felt any pity for this man, but the disturbing violence of the scene makes it difficult to find much satisfaction in this revenge.

an Aboriginal man and a woman covered in blood stand next to each other in the woods, a horse beside them

Clare’s revenge is cut short when the rest of the soldiers escape and another group stumbles upon the murder scene. Add to this mix an illness, a moment of hesitation, and a separation from Billy, and things are looking pretty bleak for Clare. Will she complete her mission of vengeance…even if the cost is Billy’s life?

The Rating:

2/5 Pink Panther Heads

A social justice-oriented period drama about a woman seeking vengeance against genocidal misogynists? Sounds like a film plucked right from my dreams. Perhaps my disappointment is one reason I disliked this film so intensely, but here are some other reasons this one just didn’t click for me.

First off, I do not believe in censorship; however, I find it tough to believe that repeated, explicit scenes of sexual violence are necessary. There are so many rape scenes in this film, and they are much more graphic than I feel is needed. The rape of Lowanna is especially mishandled as she is a rather flat character, onscreen exclusively to suffer and die. In comparison with Clare’s story, Lowanna’s assault feels set up to be a lesser, secondary pain. I’m deeply uncomfortable with the way this narrative is set up and the way Lowanna is a plot device rather than a person.

I’m also unconvinced that the way race is addressed in this film as a whole works particularly well. It takes Clare a really long time to recognize Billy’s humanity. She treats him so badly throughout the film, while Billy must consistently play the role of exceptional man of color, proving he excels in tracking and survival skills. Though Billy and Clare ultimately develop a deeply felt mutual understanding, it’s gross that Billy has to prove himself multiple times and face mortal wounds just to be recognized as a human being.

I will credit this film for casting Aboriginal actors to play Aboriginal characters. Additionally, as this was shot on location in Tasmania, the cinematography is stunning.

Overall, the brutal and unflinching violence of this film is off-putting to me rather than effective. At worst, it feels voyeuristic; at best, it lacks subtlety. For me, the explicit violence replaces the sense of psychological terror that may have served this film better.

Would my blog wife lead this one safely across a rushing river or unleash violent revenge upon it? Read her review here to find out!

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