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Blu-ray Review: The Nightingale – “An epic, emotional, intense and unforgettable film”

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Released by Second Sight Films on limited edition Blu-ray on the 1st of February, The Nightingale is written and directed by Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) and stars Aisling Franciosi (The Fall), Baykali Ganambarr (The Furnace) and Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games).

Clare (Franciosi), nicknamed “the nightingale” for her incredible singing voice, is a servant working for the British forces at a penal colony in Van Diemen’s land (present-day Tasmania). The British are commanded by Colonel Hawkins (Claflin), a commander who is happy to turn a blind eye to his men’s behaviour, and feels absolutely entitled to not only a coming promotion at another outpost in town, but to Clare’s body.

Hawkins rapes Clare one night after she sings for the men and then informs her that though her sentence to servitude is up he will not be letting her or her baby and husband, Aidan (Michael Sheasby), leave the encampment anytime soon. When Clare’s husband intervenes and humiliates Hawkins in front of his men, a brutal and harrowing gang-rape soundtracked by their baby screaming, Clare’s pleading and her husband’s begging ensues.

The soldiers shoot Aidan, dash the baby against the wall to stop it crying and leave Clare for dead. It’s a shocking, sickening, heartbreaking scene that will leave you nauseous and teary-eyed and I give you this level of detail purely to make sure you are clear how upsetting and triggering the first thirty minutes could be.

The next morning, Clare comes to, realises there will be no justice forthcoming from the British forces and that Hawkins has already left to take up the new post. Fuelled by rage and the absolute need for bloody retribution, Clare teams up with an Aboriginal tracker, Billy (Ganambarr) and pursues Hawkins into the Tasmanian bush.

Clare and Billy’s Initial mutual hatred and distrust gradually gives way to grudging respect due to a mutual hatred of the English, enforced as they travel across country witnessing the barbarism and destruction inflicted by the British colonial forces on the land and its people. Hawkins and his men continue to help themselves to any woman that crosses their path and to kill native peoples with nary a second thought and they must pay, but vengeance in The Nightingale will be meted out differently to how you may expect.

As ugly and painful as the events are to watch, the film is beautifully photographed, with immaculate production design and cinematography capturing the era, land, locations and costumes wonderfully. Franciosi delivers an absolutely immense performance, burning with pain and willing to go through any other hardship to kill the men who destroyed her life. Ganambarr’s role expands in screentime and importance over the course of the film. His tragic backstory and newly forced into societal position opening the route to a rich exploration of colonisation and being turned into a worthless exile in your very own country.

The British soldiers are suitably foul, but Claflin keeps his performance realistic throughout. He never edges for a second into pantomime villainy, making you constantly very aware that this was the way things were and men like this acted awfully and without impunity and that in his eyes he does not even think he is doing anything wrong. Clare means nothing to him, nor do the Aborigines and his constant selfish evil makes you as desperate for uppance to come as Clare is.

The Nightingale is an epic, emotional, intense and unforgettable film, with moments of heart-stopping horror and crushing sadness, that will run you ragged and leave you wrung out. Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook is hardcore and hard work but it is also an important examination of a period of history that many will not be familiar with, as well as being fucking cathartic as hell right now.

Disc-wise, the Blu-ray is put together with basic, but clean and beautiful menus, and features English hard-of-hearing subtitles and DTS 5.1 audio. The audio is faultless and makes nice use of the rears when the occasion calls for it, ditto the LFE channel. The sync is spot-on and although we did not watch with the subs on, the forced stream that appears to translate Aborigine and Gaelic dialogue and song lyrics had no spelling or grammar issues.

The video is in the original 4×3 aspect ratio, which is square leaving black strips down the sides of the screen, as per how it was shot and expected to be screened. The encode is good, with a depth to the blacks, nice colour representation and no visible blocking or any other video artefacts.

When it comes to the bonus material, Second Sight Films have put together a thoughtful and insightful package of extras. First up is a collection of eight cast and crew interviews, talking to star Aisling Franciosi, fellow cast members: Michael Sheasby, Damon Herriman and Harry Greenwood, producer Kristina Ceyton, editor Simon Njoo, production designer Alexander Holmes and composer Jed Kurzel.

All shot during Covid lockdown they are all done via Zoom call or self-filmed, but are not low enough in quality to affect your enjoyment – a couple of dropped frames and tinny audio in the Franciosi one being as bad as it ever gets. The talent all talk about how they got involved, their filming experiences and their working relationships with Jennifer Kent. The interview with the producer is particularly interesting in this regard: discussing how The Babadook opened doors, launched their careers and changed things; as is the editor interview as Njoo talks a lot about Kent – who is unfortunately not present among the interviews – and her vision and how they realised it.

The production design and score were two elements that really stood out to me and I enjoyed, so interviews with those responsible and hearing how they went about making choices and building a world are a real treat. None of these interviews are mere “everyone was lovely” electronic press kit jobs. Durations range from twenty-three to fifteen minutes and are thorough and informative.

“Bloody White People”, a phrase uttered more than once by the exasperated Billy as he is constantly treated like an outcast outsider on his own land, is the title of a visual essay by Alexander Heller-Nicholas. I have seen a fair few of Heller-Nicholas’ extras and heard lots of her commentaries, so was really pleased to see her contribute here. Being Australian she provides authentic opinion, and being very clever and a joy to listen to helps exponentially too. Her piece is nineteen minutes and explains a lot of history and provides much cultural context.

Speaking of “context”, ‘The Nightingale in Context’ is a half-hour making-of that fills in some gaps in terms of talent interviewed such as Jennifer Kent and Baykali Ganambarr – who plays Billy. And speaking of “making of’s”, ‘The Making of The Nightingale’ is another behind-the scenes and interviews piece that focusses on capturing the authenticity of the era in the film. A trailer rounds out the selection and a really nice and satisfyinging host of extras that would be perfect if for a Kent commentary.

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The Nightingale is released by Second Sight Films on limited edition Blu-ray on the 1st of February.

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