The Nightingale is the sophomore effort of Jennifer Kent, director of the Australian cult horror film The Babadook. The intensely psychological texture of that film, which announced the arrival of an original female voice in the overcrowded horror field, is repeated here in a slightly different generic context: the historical drama.
The setting is Australia in the 1820s, and 21-year-old Clare (Aisling Franciosi) has concluded a seven-year stint of indentured servitude to Hawkins, a boorish, abusive lieutenant in the British army (Michael Sheasby in an eminently hate-able role). Her status as an Irish convict in a colonized land has rendered her powerless against the psychosexual abuses of her master, who refuses to grant her freedom. Her dewy-eyed, sensitive husband (Michael Sheasby) entreats her to escape with their infant child and make a life for themselves.
Of course, they do not go far. In an unflinchingly harrowing scene, Clare is stripped of the last shred of happiness and security she has, and emerges from the tragedy with a numbed soul and a heart bent toward revenge. With the help of Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), a young Aboriginal tracker, she pursues the criminals across a bleak Tasmanian landscape on a bloody vendetta. This standard revenge plot is enriched by the intersectional politics at play in Kent’s original screenplay, but the film is marred by a one-dimensional villain and eventually buckles under the weight of its monotonously linear, 136-minute narrative.
Kent’s visual flair is evident in a few superfluous dream sequences, and she reconfirms her deep commitment to visceral violence; a scene in which a soldier’s face is smashed in with the butt of a rifle breaks down the audience’s defenses. In the title role — a nickname bestowed for her sweet singing voice — Franciosi is touchingly vulnerable, but her dramatic transformation into an avenging angel proves slightly beyond her reach. A final speech reinstating her independence from the world of men falls somewhat short. In most respects, however, The Nightingale sustains Kent’s reputation as a promising talent — a filmmaker who employs familiar tropes to explore some of the darkest impulses of human nature.
ArcLight, 6360 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; Opens Fri. Aug. 2, various showtimes; $16-$18; (323) 615-2550, arclightcinemas.com.