Baykali Ganambarr (left) and Aisling Franciosi in “The Nightingale.” (Matt Nettheim / IFC Films)

Baykali Ganambarr (left) and Aisling Franciosi in “The Nightingale.” (Matt Nettheim / IFC Films)

‘The Nightingale’: Sickening violence, with a core of humanity

This harrowing film tells the story of a woman who seeks vengeance in 1825 Tasmania.

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

Talk to us

More in Life

Local musician Alex Johnston, whose newest album "Daylight Fooldream" pairs with short film he made with help from his partner Mikaela Henderson, sits with his morning coffee on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023, at Narrative Coffee in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Folktronica musician shoots 37-minute visual album on iPhone in Everett

Alex Johnston, 31, describes his music as ”if Coldplay and Bon Iver had a love child.”

Flowering knotweed Persicaria amplexicaulis firetail in the morning light.
Save for one infamous variety, fleece flowers are easy to fall in love with

This long-blooming, easy-to-grow perennial comes in many desirable varieties. But watch out: One is an invasive knotweed.

A view of King Street Station in Seattle, Washington from an Amtrak Cascades train to Portland, Oregon from Everett, Washington on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Ride the rails on Amtrak Cascades from Everett to Portland

Make new friends and let Amtrak do the driving on this 5-hour trip past sea, city and forest.

From left, Elora Coble, Carol Richmond, David Hayes, Karli Reinbold, Giovanna Cossalter Walters, Landon Whitbread in a scene from Edmonds Driftwood Players' production of "Murder on the Orient Express." (Dale Sutton / Magic Photography)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Edmonds Driftwood Players opens its 65th season with Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”

Some collectibles are found in nature; some imitate them. If it weren’t for the attached figure, this Royal Dux porcelain vase might pass for a real conch shell.
This shell-shaped vase would make a fine souvenir of summer fun

It may not be a real shell, but this art nouveau piece could still evoke fond memories of days at the beach.

Arlington Garden Club celebrating its 90th anniversary

The club has monthly programs for north Snohomish County gardeners and awards scholarships to area students.

Spouses Franchesca and Don Simpson talk about their baby girl’s “chubby cheeks” and “button nose” as Kelly Fox RDMS RVT performs a live-view 3D ultrasound on the expecting mother Saturday, August 26, 2023, at Wonder Baby Ultrasound Studio in Everett, Washington. The Simpsons are expecting their first child in October. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Glamour shots in utero? Everett studio offers HD ultrasound keepsakes

For curious parents, these glimpses are exciting, but not medically endorsed.

An Oxford White grille with red “BRONCO” lettering signifies the 2023 Ford Bronco Sport Heritage Limited Edition model. (Ford)
2023 Ford Bronco Sport has two new Heritage Edition models

Design and paint treatments pay homage to the original Bronco introduced in 1966.

Everett comedian Taylor Clark performs stand-up in 2023 at The Triple Door in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Mike Bryk)
Comedian Taylor Clark to film first special Friday in Everett

The skateboarding funny-man will record an hour of his stand-up at the Historic Everett Theater.

Most Read