An uncompromising, on-the-warpath second feature by gifted Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent, “The Nightingale” may stray far away from the horror genre she worked so expertly in her debut — but that’s not to say there’s no babadook in it. It’s just taken another, less uncanny form: that of the colonial white Englishman, a many-headed beast terrorizing women and indigenous locals with near-deathless persistence in the unforgiving wilds of 19th-century Tasmania. Following two such victims, a 21-year-old Irish convict woman and her reluctant Aboriginal tracker, in circuitous pursuit of the army officer who viciously wronged her family, Kent’s elemental revenge tale attains a near-mythic grandeur over the course of its arduous, ravishing trek. Some stricter editing wouldn’t go amiss, particularly in a needlessly baggy, to-and-fro finale, but it’s a pretty magnificent mass of movie.
Somewhat grotesquely jeered at its first Venice press screening, this is violent, hard-graft auteur filmmaking that isn’t out to make friends or play nice, and certainly won’t match “The Babadook’s” crossover art-genre success with audiences. But it’s also a both-barrels-blazing statement of intent from a filmmaker determined not to be limited or labeled by the popular meme-ification of her debut, with the muscular formal grasp to match her ambitious reach. As a feat of seething revisionist history fashioned as revisionist western, “The Nightingale” can stand tall as a feminist companion to Warwick Thornton’s recent “Sweet Country” (a Venice premiere last year) in the modern Australian canon, and should (particularly with a trim or two) enjoy equivalent exposure in global arthouses.
If “The Nightingale’s” earthy historical setting and relentless focus on real-world terror are departures for Kent, however, one of its most salient virtues is consistent with her debut: She can conjure a nightmare on screen like nobody’s business. Far from cheap fake-outs or ornamental fillers, the film’s recurring, rhythmic slips into a tortured dream state serve to track the fraying, increasingly exhausted psyche of our heroine Clare (a terrific Aisling Franciosi), and to mark the film’s teetering pile-up of trauma, as separate acts and images of violence are replayed in her unconscious at varying levels of intensity: blood-distorted faces and bodies surging from velvet blackness, or pulling her under a tar-water surface.
The film’s opening reels alone provide more than a film’s worth of atrocity, as Clare is introduced under the vindictive thumb of Hawkins (Sam Claflin, playing adventurously and horrifically against type), an under-achieving British lieutenant stationed in the colony of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), who routinely takes out his frustration over his stalled rank on those in his charge. Clare, banished from Ireland to the isle for a petty teenage crime, has served her seven-year sentence and married fellow convict Aidan (Michael Sheasby), but Hawkins refuses to sign her release papers — instead routinely calling on her bell-voiced singing services in the local tavern, and repeatedly raping her for her pains.
When Aidan makes a final, aggressive plea for her freedom, the ensuing fallout is so brutal as to challenge sensitive viewers’ constitutions; it leaves Clare battered and bereft, as Hawkins and his weak-willed underlings flee to pursue a promotion in the distant town of Launceston. Once she comes to, with no firm objective in her shock-ruptured mind beyond simple eye-for-an-eye vengeance, she resolves to chase them down on her husband’s trusty if none-too-speedy steed. But the course is unclear and the land is rough, riddled with further human dangers for a woman traveling alone. Grudgingly, she procures the services of Billy (Baykali Ganambarr, a traditional dancer making an entrancing screen debut), an Aboriginal guide himself far from his tribal home, and with his own bitter laundry list of grievances against the colonists.
What ensues is a slow, snaking mouse-and-cat chase through the damp, mossy, mist-stitched Tasmanian jungle, given added prickly tension by the mutual racial mistrust between mistress and servant. That thaws only as they realize their common, bone-deep hatred of the English, most specifically those forging waywardly ahead in the forest, leaving a winding trail of further bloodshed in their wake. It’s a stark, flayed narrative, given depth and texture by the demands of a forbidding, crevice-ridden landscape, and the slow-blossoming accord between Clare and Billy — never quite a romance, but a devastated understanding between two near-lone wolves with no personal investments left beyond their own shared empathy.
It’s this creepingly soulful relationship that keeps “The Nightingale” gripping even as Kent’s deliberate but rigorous storytelling starts to lose its shape. The final half-hour, in particular, slides into a repetitive profusion of stymied confrontations and retreats as the distance between Clare and her tormentor narrows — and slightly squandering the impact of a stunning verbal faceoff in a Launceston bar, in which Clare’s high, pure singing, once deployed as veritable slave labor by Hawkins, is weaponized against him. Kent certainly doesn’t want for strong, cathartic scenes in this stretch; she may just have too many.
With only terse, mostly practical-minded dialogue between them, Franciosi and Ganambarr’s performances beautifully reflect their characters’ shifting perception of difference, often mirroring each other in their beaten body language and the toughened set of their respective jaws. Sharply alternated closeups in which they gaze searchingly, suspiciously into each other prove the wisdom of Kent and d.p. Radek Ladczuk’s counter-intuitive decision to shoot in Academy ratio, resisting the widescreen pull of their spectacular exterior environment — which nonetheless gets splendid, painted-in-soil visual treatment, in a palette that leaves you wondering just how many shades of tree bark there are in this mourning forest. Elsewhere, werewolf moons roll eerily over lightning-struck tree silhouettes in shots that prove Kent’s undiminished mastery of fairytale fright. But that’s all incidental atmosphere: this good-versus-evil western plays out most crucially on the scratched, torn, untamed landscape of human faces, and Kent has no urgent interest in prettifying the ground beneath that battle.