If the gothic genre is about horror and fear, this is the definitive example of Tasmanian Gothic. It would be hard to imagine a darker, bloodier story.
Clare is an Irish girl transported to Van Diemen’s Land for some unspecified crime. She’s served out her seven years as the assigned servant of a British army Lieutenant and is keen to gain her ticket-of-leave so she can start a new life with her nice young Irish ex-convict husband – Aidan – and their gorgeous baby.
The lieutenant – Hawkins – won’t release her because he’s got the hots for her. When Aidan becomes pushy and insists on her freedom, terrible violence ensues. Hawkins sets off for Launceston in pursuit of a promotion, accompanied by a small band of soldiers under his command. Clare sets off after him in pursuit of vengeance, accompanied by aboriginal tracker Billy. More hideous violence ensues before the 137-minute story is fully told.
Director Jennifer Kent’s previous and much-lauded film The Babadook was also an exercise in gothic horror, but there it was mainly psychological and atmospheric. Here she’s set her story in a time and place that allows her to make the horror real and physical: Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) during the Black Wars of the 1820s, when the indigenous people suffered greatly at the hands of the European settlers bent on taking and exploiting the land.
Whether things were as bad as depicted here is moot; this is genre fiction, not historical documentary after all. If it purported to be historically accurate I would be worried about the character stereotyping. Not all the Englishmen are baddies in The Nightingale, but all the baddies are white Englishmen. The victims of their badness are either black, female, Irish or a child.
The fact is, it was often the freed convicts, English or Irish or whatever, who were most active and fierce in the conflict with the blacks over land use, because they had the most to gain or lose, as poor folks always do in a clash of cultures. The military establishment was at some remove and tried, however fitfully and unsuccessfully, to stop the worst of it when white settlers retaliated brutally against blacks who attacked isolated farms, killed settlers and stole stock. In the end, of course, the whites had better weapons and technology and the outcome was never in doubt.
Within the story there was some dramatic inconsistency. At the point when we enter it, Clare has worked for Hawkins for seven years and he’s allowed her to marry Aidan and live with him in their own house. So why does he suddenly turn so mercilessly violent? Especially since he wants to be promoted for his good management of the convicts, whom he did not have the legal right to kill with impunity, as the film indirectly acknowledges.
There is also dramatic inconsistency in Clare’s revenge-taking. Having dished out hideous violence to a lesser baddy she squibs it with the uber-baddy, having apparently had an unlikely epiphany that violence only begets more violence. Nothing wrong with that as the Moral of the Story, but it sits at odds with the way her character motivation has been developed.
The narrative is unnecessarily drawn out towards the end, with one delaying twist after another before the final bloody resolution. It’s a powerful story, powerfully told, but it didn’t need such hackneyed devices and would have benefited from a shorter running-time without them.
Overall the period evocation was good, although my companion observed that the supposedly rough roads of Van Diemen’s Land too often looked like ‘Parks and Wildlife’s best work’. Note: we are both latter day VanDemonians so we’re allowed to be picky!
I did love Clare’s singing. The young Irish actress who plays her – Aisling Franciosi – did it all herself and it’s poignant and moving.