WiHM 2020 Movie Review: ‘The Nightingale’ (2019) A Stunning Tale Of Revenge And Redemption

There are films out there that change you after you see them. You walk away knowing that you will view the world differently from then on. The Nightingale is one of those films. It’s fitting that for Women in Film Month 2020, we explore this film which was directed by Jennifer Kent (The Babadook.2014) The film stars Aisling Fransiosi (Game of Thrones TV series), Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games franchise), and Baykali Ganambarr in his amazing debut.


Set in 1825, Clare, a young Irish convict woman, chases a British officer through the rugged Tasmanian wilderness, bent on revenge for a terrible act of violence he committed against her family. On the way she enlists the services of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy, who is also marked by trauma from his own violence-filled past.

The Nightingale takes place in what was formerly known as Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), a brutal, unforgiving place where a group of colonial soldiers keep watch over established penal colonies of prisoners. This is during the height of the Black War, a nasty battle between the colonists and the native Tasmanians, resulting in the near annihilation of the indigenous people. In the middle of all this is Clare (Fransiosi), an Irish prisoner who has earned her freedom ticket from the man holding it, Lieutenant Hawkins (Claflin). But in a show of both arrogance and frustration at his continued lack of promotion, he refuses to give it. Instead he continues to use her beautiful, nightingale-like voice to entertain the drunken soldiers under his command. Frustrated, Clare’s husband goes to confront Hawkins to insist on her freedom, leading the Lieutenant to commit an act of violence that tears Clare’s entire world apart.

Ignored by local authorities and filled with rage, Clare decides to hunt the soldiers down herself, taking along with her a reluctant native guide, Billy (Ganambarr). At first, Clare has the casual racist attitude of the time, calling Billy “boy,” keeping a gun fixed on him, and refusing to tell him her true intentions for following the soldiers. But over time, a fragile truce between them is established, built on shared trauma, sadness, and the deepest bonds of humanity.

The Nightingale may seem to fall into the category of rape/revenge movies, but as the film goes on, it reveals itself as something new entirely. Certainly Clare seems to fit the mold, positively quaking at times with the force of her bloodlust. But the longer the film goes on, the dimmer Clare’s anger seems to burn.

The acting is one of the truly great things about this film. Aisling Franciosi’s Claire starts out fragile and trembling, only to transform into an avenging angel seething with rage, before at last regaining a weary sense of humanity. Every single frame of her face tells a story, and she never falters for a single second. Baykali Ganambarr, as Billy (or Mangana, The Blackbird), is a revelation. A native dancer from Australia, he doesn’t act as much as embody the man who helps Clare while also being forced to watch his own people die and his culture destroyed.

Sam Claflin, playing against type, is absolutely terrifying as Hawkins. It’s a compliment to his acting abilities to say that I utterly despised him. Hawkins is a braggart, a bully, a rapist, and a murderer. He’s one of the worst characters I have ever seen on film. It’s a hell of a performance.

The Nightingale isn’t an easy watch. I have seen many disturbing movies over the years – A Serbian Film 2010 – read our review here, Irreversible 2002 and Martyrs 2008 – read our review here), just to name a few – but there was something about the rape and violence in this film that really got under my skin. The Nightingale just feels real. That being said, it is necessary to tell the story. The entire film lacks a musical score, never allowing a moment of softness in any way. Our only reprieve comes from the sounds of the animals of the forest and the occasional haunting song from Claire or Billy. Director Jennifer Kent does a beautiful job keeping the violence against the women from feeling exploitative.

Watch The Nightingale now!

To put it simply, The Nightingale must be seen by the masses, as the topics it explores are so important. It’s not just about rape and revenge. This film is ultimately about power: between men and women, whites and natives, the have and have-nots… the power to let go of hate. And most importantly, it serves as a reminder of a shameful, brutal colonial past that should never be forgotten.

About Christine Burnham

When not writing, Christine Burnham is watching TV, Horror films, reading, cooking, and spending time with her menagerie of animals.

Check Also

Thai Film ‘CRACKED’ is Missed Opportunity – Review

Ah, horror tropes. Used in the right way, they make horror movies better. But with …