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Protest song

The Nightingale is a brutal indictment of colonialism

Aisling Franciosi in The Nightingale


Watching The Nightingale is an act of endurance. Set against the backdrop of the “Black War,” a period of violent conflict between the colonial British forces and Indigenous Aboriginal Australians circa 1800, the film is a tough sit but an absolutely necessary watch. It’s not dissimilar to the anguished journey of Clare (Aisling Franciosi), the young mother at the center of this period-set revenge western written and directed by Jennifer Kent. 

The film centers around Clare, an Irish convict hoping to receive her papers of freedom so she and her husband can raise their daughter free from the oppressive thumb of the British. Soon she is brutally raped, her family murdered in front of her at the hands of the boorish British colonial soldiers lead by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Left for dead, Clare awakens to find Hawkins has set out across the Tasmanian bush to take a promotion at a military encampment. Clare finds no sympathy from local officials, due largely to her convict status on the island. Who would believe the word of a scurrilous criminal anyway?

Determined to take her revenge, Clare employs the aid of a reluctant scout named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal Australian who has seen his own people slaughtered at the hands of the British. Together they embark on a perilous journey through the Tasmanian bush, but it isn’t the native inhabitants or the inhospitable terrain posing the greatest threat; rather it’s those wearing the banner of the imperialist ruling class. 

While Clare and Billy form an unlikely alliance, it isn’t without its own complications. Even the Irish aren’t absolved of their virulent and inherent racism toward the native inhabitants of the island. Clare eventually comes to see the horrific treatment of Billy and his people, but her mission of vengeance never quite transcends her own self-righteousness. She simply wants to see the men who murdered her infant son and husband pay for their horrific acts—yet, when given the chance, she opts for a mere display of defiance, telling off newly promoted Hawkins in front of his superiors. No one so much as blinks an eye  before she storms off, satisfied in her vengeance. But Billy finds no satisfaction in Clare’s act. The last of his race, he has nothing left—no family, no home. The only move he has left is avenging the horrors enacted upon his people.

Kent follows up her breakout domestic horror film The Babadook with a full on indictment on colonialism in all its violent imperialistic brutality—a revenge film seething with centuries of trauma. There is no turning away from the brutality of The Nightingale as Kent doesn’t seem to mince in her depiction of the horrific atrocities committed upon the indigenous inhabitants of the island as well as those who were forced into indentured servitude by the British army. 

While the film takes place circa 1800 in a land far away from our own North American shores, one can’t escape the parallels to the exact same atrocities occurring to America’s own Indigenous civilizations at the hands of a different band of colonial soldiers and hostile settlers.

The Nightingale may refer to Clare, whose mournful songs punctuate the film throughout, but it’s Billy, who’s Aboriginal name is Mangala, the blackbird who’s bleating song of survival and vengeance is what we all should be listening to.

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