Thursday, August 29, 2019

In colonial Australia, brutality within brutality

The Nightingale, opening Friday at the Upton Birmingham 8, is Jennifer Kent’s second feature film, following her critically successful The Babadook (2014). While her earlier film dealt with the horror of psychological trauma, The Nightingale deals with horror that was very much of this world, set during colonial Tasmania early in the 19th century. We all know that Australia was a penal colony but Tasmania harbored Britain’s most hardened criminals. The film’s central character, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a petty criminal from Ireland, wasn’t one of them but the island had to have a semblance of women for all those men, and you can guess the results. In the story, Clare is released after serving seven years and seeks she and husband Aiden’s (Michael Sheasby) freedom to make a new life. Yet Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Clafin) keeps her as a personal slave. One night, Hawkins, a frustrated middle-ranked officer, goes too far, and an incident so horrific occurs that Clare must seek revenge, the undertaking of which makes up three quarters of the film. So, from a plot perspective, the action is pretty straight forward. The movie has all the trappings of any story where morality, retribution and justice take center stage, but set in the hinterland of this frontier off Australia’s coast. What makes the story more complex - and this is why the director wanted to make the film in the first place – was to depict the multilayered gender, race, class and imperalist brutality that marked ker country’s early development. “The colonization of Australia was a time of inherent violence; towards Aboriginal people, towards women, and towards the land itself, which was wrenched from its first inhabitants,” she says. So, while the narrative is one dimensional the relationships between the characters is not. We have the British military oppressing Irish convicts (Clare shouts “I fucking hate the English!”), the abominable treatment of women - at least lower-class ones (convicts and Irish), and the universal despotism towards Aboriginals. But within these layers are subsets of exploitation - even Clare sees herself a superior to Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), her Aboriginal guide. “Move boy!” she orders, and when he seeks spiritual guidance, scowls, “I don’t want you putting your hocus pocus on me.” The film’s sets and costumes including uniforms made form original dyes, are certainly authentic, especially the “Old Masters” painting look of building interiors. And Kent said she painstakingly researched period speech though there are contemporary nods that underline the  universality of sadism. I don’t have too many problems with the way the film was made,  except that the actors’ faces, particularly Clare’s and Hawkins’s, seem a bit too fresh-faced for their ordeals. And I would have somehow liked this plot to have been less of a conventional ”chase” film.

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