You know something? I’ve seen some depressing shit in my day.
For starters, I was born ass-first; I came out of my mother with my ankles up over head, ready to be screwed Serbian Film-style by life in general. Not to delve too deeply into my own boring life, but I’ve been mugged, stabbed, homeless, momentarily blind, and (for a very brief period) captive in my neighbor’s trunk.
None of these experience, however, could prepare me for the tsunami of depression dubbed The Nightingale.
Don’t get me wrong, The Nightingale is a goddamn great movie. Beautifully shot, well-written, well-cast, and respectful to the norms of the period in which it takes place. But Sweet Baby Jesus, it’s more depressing as anything I’ve ever encountered.
The movie takes place in Tasmania during the early 1800s. The main character, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), is an Irish convict working off her sentence by serving a unit of the British Army. During this time in history, the Irish were treated nearly as terribly as the black aboriginal people, who were indiscriminately murdered, tortured, or raped at the discretion of nearly anyone with white skin. Being that Clare is also a woman, she is seen as even less of a human being by the military men she serves, particularly a man named Lieutenant Hawkins. You see, Clare’s arrangement as a convict dictates that she and her husband will serve the British Army for a set period of time, and then she’ll be given her freedom…but that period of time has long since passed, and Hawkins has no intention of fulfilling his legal end of the bargain. Instead, he rapes Clare as he pleases and uses her family’s welfare as leverage to keep her silent.
But Clare’s husband has had enough, and for the sake of their newborn baby, he wants them to be set free and escape to a place which they can call their own. He engages in a drunken brawl with Hawkins over the terms of Clare’s freedom…and this results in hands-down the most depressing and gut-wrenching scene I’ve ever watched. In short, don’t bother watching this movie if you’re triggered by almost anything, because you’ll never forgive yourself.
I won’t provide the mercy of spoilers. Maybe you already know what happens, but there’s no comparison to actually watching it happen, for better or worse.
Anyway, Clare spends the movie seeking revenge against Hawkins and his men. She’s ill-equipped for the dangers of the Tasmanian wilderness, and although she’s driven by a primal rage, she’s just a single petite woman in a world of dangerous and powerful men. She enlists the help of an aboriginal who’s been given the name Billy (Baykali Ganambarr, and their alliance is shaky from the get-go. For one thing, she has no sympathy whatsoever for Billy’s own situation as “less than,” not even with regards to her similar experiences. He’s black, and therefore she sees him as a menace who’ll slit her throat as soon as she closes her eyes to rest.
But as their shared quest continues, they start to grow on each other. Billy tells her over and over that no matter what’s been done to her, she really can’t make any meaningful difference, and that fighting against powerful parties will only lead to her doom. Billy has watched friends and family members be cut down almost as if it were a game, and he’s spent a long time as a slave who’s granted fewer rights than cattle. Even if Clare doesn’t see him as a man, he begins to see something meaningful in her quest for revenge, something that stokes the dying fire in his own belly.
I’ll warn you ahead of time: there aren’t many happy moments in The Nightingale. In a sick and beautiful way, it’s an endurance movie that dares you to keep watching, promising the possibility of a happy ending despite repeatedly providing evidence to the contrary.
The Nightingale is directed by Jennifer Kent, who previously had global success with The Babadook. This latest film has very little in common with The Babadook, at least in terms of horror, but it’s thematically stronger and much more memorable. Even if you end up hating this movie, it’s filled with scenes you won’t be able to scrub from your subconscious. You’ll lie awake at night asking yourself, “Why…why did I keep watching past that first cruel scene?”
Regardless of how psychologically damaging The Nightingale is, I’ll go out of my way to recommend it to almost anyone, mostly because it’s unfair that anyone else should go through life without knowing this level of cinematic Hell. It’s not a movie you’ll watch passively while screwing around with your phone. It’s compelling, it’s brutal, and it never lets go long enough to let you run away from it.
I give The Nightingale 9/10 singing birds.
Shout! Factory and IFC Midnight will release the film on Blu-ray on February 4th, 2020.
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