Murder ballad

Australian revenge tragedy strikes a dark historical note

Opens Friday, Aug. 23. Starring Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin and Baykali Ganambarr. Directed by Jennifer Kent. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

For about half of its 136-minute running time, The Nightingale shapes up as one of the best films this year. And for me, at least, those intermittent virtues are more than enough to sustain this multifaceted action adventure through and beyond its lesser intervals.

Written and directed by Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), the story is set in Australia’s Tasmanian wilderness in the early 19th century, and sports a cast of characters that includes Irish convicts, British soldiers, uprooted aboriginals and assorted yokels and thugs. The central figures are Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict whose husband and child are killed by the British; Lt. Hawkins (Sam Claflin), an ambitious and blithely corrupt British officer who treats Clare and others as his personal property; and Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an orphaned aboriginal tracker who eventually makes common cause with Clare.

The central story scheme has Clare pursuing Hawkins into the wilds in a quest for revenge after his attacks on her and her family. Billy is enlisted as her guide, but soon finds himself immersed in a parallel quest of his own. That sets The Nightingale up as a combination epic adventure and revenge tragedy as well as a ferocious critique of colonialism and the racism and patriarchal sexism that go with it.

Rape, murder and an assortment of systemic brutalities raise the narrative temperature to a boil early on. But the potential for cheap-shot sensationalism is held at least partly at bay by the complications and parallels that arise in the course of the action.

The crossfire of tensions between the Irish and the British and between the aboriginals and “the whites,” and the class distinctions among the British take some unexpected turns. And in separate but parallel ways, Clare and Billy both bring dream, myth and the supernatural into the proceedings.

Franciosi and Ganambarr both give strong performances. Some of Kent’s dialogue sounds somewhat anachronistic, but the most glaring problem with delivery and characterization emerges with Claflin’s Lt. Hawkins who comes across with a blandness so lacking in irony that he’s little more than a cliché villain of the most vapid sort.

Damon Herriman (familiar from TV’s Justified and his current role as Charles Manson in Once Upon a Time in … Hollywood) fares much better with the dynamics of British injustice—as the brutally loyal Sgt. Ruse. Other noteworthy contributions include Harry Greenwood as the conflicted young soldier “Jago,” young Charlie Shotwell as the fledgling criminal Eddie, Michael Sheasby as Clare’s anguished husband, Aidan, and Charlie Jampijinpa Brown as Billy’s revered Uncle Charlie.

The title is part of the film’s mythological bird imagery, but it also refers specifically to Clare herself. She’s dubbed the prison colony’s “nightingale,” its singer, at the start, and at the end she’s a singer of a different, and changed, sort.