THE NIGHTINGALE (2019, Jennifer Kent)
Kent’s sophomore feature is not a horror movie, like THE BABADOOK, but perhaps this is a meaningless semantic distinction. There are no supernatural elements, no creatures, no serial killers, and no jump scares. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a horrifying movie. On the contrary, this is one of the most sadistic, bleak, cruel, ugly motion pictures you’re bound to see all year. There may be no Monsters, but there are plenty of monsters — i.e., human beings.
It’s hard to think of a horror movie antagonist more villainous than Sam Clafin’s Lt. Hawkins — an incompetent soldier with a bilious temper, and zero moral compass. He and his cronies (those around him act more like victims than colleagues, as he uses his authority and intimidation tactics to order people around, shaming them into following commands) spend most of the movie raping women left and right, and murdering black people and small children. Whenever you think Kent isn’t going to go there, she goes there.
So why are we putting up with this barbaric nightmare for over two hours? That depends on who you are — if you need a movie to draw an analogy between the 19th century colonialism that led to British imperialists slaughtering the Aboriginal peoples of Van Diemen’s Land during the Black War / Tasmanian War and today’s genocidal atrocities committed by governments East and West, then Kent’s got you covered. But if you want to see an aesthetically brave, nuanced film with good performances and material that challenges previously held beliefs, this is not the movie for you.
Aisling Franciosi and Clafin are fine as two of the three leads, but newcomer Baykali Ganambarr struggles to appear natural. This is his first credit as an actor, and although he has a certain presence, there isn’t a scene in here where you don’t catch the man behind the character trying to “Act.” His amateur performance constantly takes you out of the movie, even when the narrative begins to follow the road-movie buddy formula of two people who just can’t stand each other at the start but grow to form a bond and respect by journey’s end. (It doesn’t help that there’s a thin layer of Magical Black Man / Noble Savage Syndrome to Ganambarr’s character too). As for Kent’s filmmaking choices, the dearth of score or stylistic touches (aside from repetitive, inert dream sequences) makes it naturalistic, but not very interesting to watch — and the 4:3 academy ratio works in disharmony with the Tasmanian wilderness as opposed to in service of it.