Her setting is colonial 19th century Tasmania, administered by the British and used as a repository for criminals arrested in Europe and shipped halfway around the world to serve out sentences.
One prisoner is Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish woman who’s served her sentence, and is awaiting her “ticket” — that is, formal recognition from the local officer in charge, Hawkins (Sam Claflin), that she is a free woman who has served her time.
But he’s reluctant to give her this ticket, because in the parlance of the time, he fancies her. These feelings are not reciprocated — Clare has a husband and child — and so Hawkins takes what he wants by force — warning: this is graphic and gruesome — before leaving with a small contingent of officers and prisoners for another post some miles away.
Thus commences a brutal saga of survival and revenge — left-for-dead Clare awakens with a heart full of rage, grabs a horse and a rifle (the iconography has much in common with the American Western), and sets out after Hawkins.
There are complications. The Tasmanian frontier is already a dangerous place – the epicenter of war between indigenous people and the British, who use and abuse the natives. Hawkins needs an aboriginal guide to reach his destination. Clare needs a guide as well, and hires Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to track the officer, and the movie plays interestingly with the various shadings of exploitation involved.
The Tasmanian landscape makes for other-worldly images, even in the cramped aspect ratio Kent chooses, but the Old West parallels make it feel at times familiar. There are faint echoes of Maddy and Rooster chasing Tom Chaney through the Indian territories in True Grit, though themes of colonial oppression dominate here, and define the complex, evolving relationship between Clare and Billy.
They suffer in different ways under British rule, and come to understand this, leading to an offbeat bond (well acted by both) formed on the trail that is the movie’s best feature. You can feel Nightingale sag when it leaves their side and pays periodic visits to the ongoing and sadistic activities of Hawkins.
This is all presented in clinical and unsparing detail, and there is a lot of it — the movie runs two hours and 16 minutes, and the violence here is to be endured and not enjoyed. This is not Once Upon a Time…in Tasmania. Its purpose is to make the lives of the oppressed seem real by making their suffering real.
What Clare finds in the wilderness, though, is like something out of Cormac McCarthy, with Kent looking for a tone between naturalistic and surreal. It’s an escalation of depravity that is beyond Clare’s capacity to meet it with anger and resolve. As her rage melts away so does the story’s narrative momentum, leading to the movie’s enigmatic, poetic and not entirely satisfying conclusion.
The Nightingale. Directed by Jennifer Kent. With Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Sam Claflin, Damen Harrimen, Charlie Shotwell. Distributed by IFC Films.
Running time: 2 hours, 17 mins.
Parents guide: R (violence)