' ' Cinema Romantico: The Nightingale

Monday, September 09, 2019

The Nightingale

“The Nightingale” opens with 21-year old Clare Carroll (Aisling Franciosi) waking to find her smiling husband, Aidan (Michael Sheasby), and infant girl, introduced in a quick series of close-ups, underlining the scene’s candlelight intimacy, a beatific portrait of family. It may well be a waking dream, however, because it’s as pleasant as “The Nightingale” ever gets, swiftly descending into nightmare, not just in the bad dreams that Clare eventually endures but in the obscene practicalities of everyday life rendering life for the underclass in 1825 Tasmania as nigh unlivable. “The Nightingale” is writer/director Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to her well-received horror flick “The Babadook”, and while her second film isn’t horror in precisely the same way, it comes across like it nonetheless, the white colonialists becoming the monsters in the woods.

The framework of this harsh society is laid bare straight away in a scene where Ruse (Damon Herriman), a British officer, inspects his troops, excoriating them for uncleanliness. Of course, Ruse’s own griminess is conspicuous, and no sooner is he chewing out his own men than he is chewed out for his own unkempt appearance by his commanding officer, Hawkins (Sam Claflin), neatly establishing not only the chain of command but society’s hierarchy, Hawkins to Ruse to his men and then on down to Clare and Aidan, ex-convicts dependent upon the benevolence of their British overseers, and, finally, the Aborigines, who we don’t even see for a good 15, 20 minutes, and who even then don’t so much enter the movie as get pulled in, kicking and screaming, epitomized in the introductory performance of Baykali Ganambarr, one big plain-spoken, unsmiling laugh of recognition.

Clare, like Aidan, is a petty convict still in bondage to Hawkins, who dangles freedom without following through, fancying himself as her protector even as he comes across more like a property owner. In that way, Clare’s plight mirrors the protagonist of last year’s transcendent “Zama”, a Spanish magistrate constantly promised a ticket out that is never granted, a spiritually torturous existence that also mimics Hawkins, huffing and puffing for a promotion to a better coastal town he clearly does not deserve, and subsequently does not get. Zama, though, was passive and his plight descended into the surreal, while Hawkins, upon deciding to strike out for the town and beg for the promotion himself, brutally makes things real in a scene of excruciating sexual violence against Clare where Kent deliberately cuts to her point-of-view and then back to the deplorable act as if suggesting that even by looking away it cannot be unseen. When the ordeal is over, her husband and child are dead, and Clare is left for dead.

She doesn’t die, though, coming to, even if the stupefying trauma suffered causes her to just sort of mentally, spiritually close down, evoked by Franciosi in the rigidity of her body movement in these moments, eerily echoing off the blood splattered across her face. All she can focus on is what happened and what needs to happen now, which is vengeance, the idea of which, the way in which it will be apparently be levied, is pointedly never considered, discussed or mentioned. Still, it drives her forward, the last thing she has left, and so she enlists an Aboriginal tracker Billy (Ganambarr) to take her after Hawkins and his party, the movie switching back and forth between both their journeys, the landscape deliberately stripped of any possible beauty, the squared off filming ratio forgoing any sense of panoramic epic for a sensation akin to the dense jungle closing in, where you never know how close to anything you really are, a late movie moment where Clare literally just stumbles into the right path not contrived but a darkly comical portrait of the white person’s navigational incompetence.

If Clare and Billy grow closer on the trek, evoked in traditional scenes of campfire confessionals and river rescues that feel at odds with the ferocious honesty elsewhere, the difference between them remains stark throughout, her innate racism not unlike her oppressors, even after they have bonded. At one point, upon seeing several white settlers escorting aboriginal prisoners, Clare instantly takes up her rifle and points it at Billy’s back, pretending he is her own prisoner. Upon stopping to converse, one of the other aborigines spouts off and, without hesitation, only glee, the men shoot them all dead, one by one, nothing less than a demonstration Tasmanian genocide. And it’s the moment when what’s happened to Clare truly connects with what’s happening to Billy.

A scene with something approximating a kindly Englishman inviting these two strangers into his home initially seems meant to demonstrate how there might well still be empathy in this callous world, though Kent, as she does later, which we will get to, mercilessly skewers that cliché in Billy’s dinner table intonation that this is his country, as if wondering why this Englishman’s ostensible act of grace makes any difference in a world where he has already fashioned himself as sitting at the head of the table. This truth in tandem with such casual, cruel violence lays bare the futility of an eye for eye and hints at a denouement pointedly spurning catharsis, stripping away all the momentum of the chase, Clare and Billy essentially lurching around and trying to fashion their own endings. If these stops and starts can make the stretch run feel long, the reward is worth it, a stunning series of final shots that, despite the serene setting, are remarkably, deservedly furious, deftly draining every last ounce of piss from The Sun Still Rises bromide until all that remains is the clear-eyed, cold-hearted truth.

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