After her life is destroyed by a British army Lieutenant, Clare (Aisling Franciosi) tries to track him down in the wilds of Tasmania. To help her, she enlists a tracker "Billy" Mangala (Baykali Ganambarr).
'The Nightingale' has already stirred some controversy with its portrayal of rape/violence enacted on women and the Aborigines of Australia. It is hard-hitting and a real difficult watch as I guess it should be. But the script that ties the set pieces together is painfully generic and it fails to raise the horror into anything significant.
It is, in essence, a revenge western and we get the complete tropes to go with it. The native tracker and the white protagonist who don't get on at first but learn to respect each other, dream sequences to represent PSTD and so on and so on. They even try and cross a river when it is too high, exciting stuff for Randolph Scott but in 2019 it's just too passé to be taken seriously. If you stand it next to something similar like 'The Homesman' it never really stacks up.
It is a long film that pushes both the bladder and your patience, considering it has one note which is total bleakness. Losing 40 minutes or so, especially as it treads over the same territory time and time again would soften many of its rough edges. It is purposely being provocative, I get that, but as a film, it just doesn't seem to have anything new to say. It will certainly generate many talking points for feminist and anti-colonial readings but generating academia and being a good film are two different things.
The villain is not particularly nuanced either, which in the ends draws away from the message the film is trying to get across. Say what you want about the British Empire and lord knows I’d encourage you but they promoted the banality of evil. People rarely see themselves as a villain and the justifications for colonising the world can often be just as troubling in its multiplicities. But Hawkins is just an unrelenting psychopath and breaks the suspension of disbelief. Surely it would be more unsettling to see his acts of violence as moments of “civilisation” other than actions of a maniac. “I was only following orders” is something we are all susceptible to, where few of us are going to kill without thought.
Billy and Clare’s relationship is functional and there are some good touches bolstered by some solid acting. As a protagonist, Clare’s arc while being realistic can be grating. To see her being a full-blown racist after suffering an onslaught of violence comes as a kick to the stomach especially as we know that by the end she won’t be, it just feels like going through the motions. Billy’s story works better but we end up with him doing a lot of saving and with Clare doing a lot of screaming and not much else.
The film really shines in its cinematography and the wilds of Tasmania really pop off the screen. They pack loads of different landscapes in the running time and out of context would certainly generate shots for the tourist board. The sets, props and costumes also look authentic as hell, everything is tattered and worn so you really feel like they are at the edge of the world, not far from how they would have seen it themselves.
Maybe people that don’t know the western genre as deeply as I do will get more out of it as they won’t be feeling they’ve seen it all before. It is serviceable and by no stretch of the imagination is it a bad film. But with such uncomfortable violence on screen, you really need to back it up with something more, or it just appears gratuitous. And for all its movements towards anti-colonial thoughts, it still steps into plenty of the mines set out in its path.