MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Nightingale’ presents an unsparing revenge drama

Aisling Franciosi, as Clare, prepares to exact her revenge in writer-director Jennifer Kent's "The Nightingale." | Photo courtesy of IFC Films

Bleak lives populate the lush, mountainous landscape of Van Diemen’s Land, which we now know as Tasmania. In 1825, this island off the southeast Australian coast near the bottom of the world was primarily a penal colony.

The British, cruel and uncompromising, were in control. What settlers there were fought the “untamed” Aboriginal population in a genocidal war.

In “The Nightingale,” the second film from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook” was her superb debut feature), a pall of horror and madness hangs over every inch of the territory.

The brutal sense of the place is revealed in violent imagery that is not for moviegoers for whom terror disturbs the heart.

The story turns on an act of rape, man against woman. The savagery on view comes from Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), a sadistic British officer overseeing a remote prison. He considers himself a productive, spit-and-polish soldier and bemoans the fact that he hasn’t earned more important assignment. He is handsome and sophisticated, but his good looks and grand style belie his ugly actions against prisoners.

His abuse of sexual power was against Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a 21-year old Irish convict, who dwells in the jail with her infant daughter and husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby).

Clare has a beautiful voice. Her singing arouses Hawkins, who uses her as his personal slave. She’s a songbird — a nightingale — serving him food and drink. However, no sound of music can change the fact that we are watching Colonialism at its worst.

The only sliver of hope for Clare is that Hawkins wants to be far away from his posting. He’s a two-faced monster, but she’ll appeal to the charms he turns on and off as if flicking a saber. Perhaps he will release her from prison. The need to remove restrictions is essential to what occurs.

As the lieutenant prepares to confront the military powers denying his transfer, Clare realizes she has a chance to exact revenge regarding the rape, on her not being freed and on the sorrow of her cruel existence. She discovers an opportunity to flee, and she takes it.

Vengeance will be hers. Into the woods she goes with murder on her mind, using a “tame” Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to guide her as she trails Hawkins.

She is now superior to someone, and she treats Billy with contempt. The slave has a slave of her own. He has his own thirst for justice.

Not only do we have a revenge tale of a now-venomous woman zealously seeking to slaughter Hawkins, but we also have the illusion of a twisted system of governance being destroyed. Revolution as a consequence of British dominance is possible, even if it’s only one woman fighting a corrupt system that kills indigenous people, viciously exploits women and tortures men who survived being shipped ten thousand miles from home for incarceration.

There are moments in “The Nightingale” where you may find it difficult to breathe.

Director Kent and cinematographer Radek Ladczuk have created a world that tempts the Furies. Tension drips throughout the forest, metaphorical darkness pervades every living soul.

Well-acted by all, here is a movie that will unsettle the toughest mind.

Other reviews:

AFTER THE WEDDING: Isabel (Michelle Williams) is an American running an orphanage in Calcutta. Having enough money to care for the children is a never-ending problem. The promise of a $2-million donation arrives from Theresa (Julianne Moore), a wealthy media executive in New York City. However, there’s a catch. Isabel must go to the United States to receive it; all expenses paid, of course.

The contrast between the poverty in India and the deluxe hotel at which she stays doesn’t unnerve Isabel, but she is eager to return to her orphans. Another catch is revealed. Theresa hasn’t quite made up her mind about the money. Perhaps Isabel can stay for the weekend and attend the wedding of her daughter Grace (Abby Quinn). Isabel has no choice.

At the wedding she encounters Theresa’s husband Oscar (Billy Crudup) a successful artist. You don’t have to know your way around soap operas to figure out where this leads. Of course, Isabel knows Oscar. What’s Theresa’s game? And who, exactly, is Grace’s mother?

I’ll keep all of the secrets and praise all of the acting. Writer-director Bart Freundlich (Moore’s real-life husband) has remade a 2006 Oscar nominee from Denmark and has added post-nuptial surprises. “After The Wedding” seems like heavy-going, but it isn’t. It’s a clever exercise, and I enjoyed the melodrama.

LUCE: Adopted from beleaguered Eritrea by a white couple in Virginia (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) grows into a smart, popular high school student and beloved athlete. His African-American teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), calls him a symbol of “black excellence.” An essay Luce writes about political violence jolts Wilson, which leads to serious miscommunication, unforeseen complications, and unexpected consequences. Luce’s early childhood in war-ravaged Eritrea is key.

“Luce” doesn’t wander from its theme. Directed by Julius Onah, and co-written by him and J. C. Lee, the beautifully constructed and sublimely acted film never panics. Its ideas are credible, its pacing perfect, and its resolution actually dares to flow from its mission of truth-telling.

Not enough movies are made for adults willing to be edified. “Luce” takes the challenge.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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