Everything beautiful becomes terrible in “The Nightingale”: a song, a forest, human intimacy. That is very much to the point of this powerful and brilliant film, one of the highlights of this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.
It comes from writer-director Jennifer Kent, the Australian whose first feature, “The Babadook,” caused justified excitement in horror-movie circles. That one played like a children’s book that came to terrifying life.
“The Nightingale” also has the qualities of a fable — a very dark fable — but makes the ingenious horror of “The Babadook” look like, well, child’s play.
It tracks the epic ordeal of Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irishwoman in service to the British forces occupying Tasmania, circa 1825. The British seek to extend their colonial reach, as well as eradicate the human beings already living there (barbaric even by comparison to other examples of genocide during the age of exploration).
In an early sequence of sickening intensity, Clare’s world is shattered by rape and murder. This sequence sets up the remainder of the story, as she joins with a wary aboriginal guide, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), to exact vengeance on the men who perpetrated the crimes.
Chief among the villains is an English officer (Sam Claflin, of the “Hunger Games” world), currently making his way through the jungle with a small contingent that includes a worshipful boy (Charlie Shotwell) and a native tracker (Charlie Jampijinpa Brown).
This wilderness trek itself has its share of shocking violence. Director Kent turns away from none of it.
This aspect has divided audience and critics. I think Kent does the right thing. She doesn’t cut away from the violence in part because using discretion with this subject matter would be insufficient. She doesn’t want us to register the horror and move on — she wants us to understand its depth.
Her subject is brutality, and how the flickering human spirit might survive such cruelty. This is not a time — in either 1825 or 2019 — for artists to use too much decorum.
The idea of revenge keeps the story going, as it always does. But we begin to realize that the testy relationship between Clare and Billy, not vengeance, is at the core of the film. There’s nothing conventional about this ad hoc partnership between people traumatized in different ways.
The two actors are excellent; Franciosi comes mostly from TV (including the “Genius: Picasso” series) and Ganambarr makes his acting debut.
There are a couple of puzzling plot turns that extend the story, but the film needs its length (136 minutes) to establish the size of its journey. Movies like this can be a tough go, but “The Nightingale” impresses with its urgency and commitment. It demands a lot from us, but we should demand that from movies, too.
“The Nightingale” (3½ stars)
Australian director Jennifer Kent brilliantly tells an urgent, harrowing story of a woman (Aisling Franciosi) seeking revenge in British-occupied Tasmania, circa 1825. The film’s brutality is undeniable, but the core relationship between the heroine and an aboriginal guide (Baykali Ganambarr) is at the core of its humanity.
Rating: R, for violence, nudity
Opening Friday: SIFF Cinema Uptown, Seattle 10