THE NIGHTINGALE (2019)

August 2, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. With only her second feature film, Jennifer Kent (THE BABADOOK) has created a near cinematic masterpiece. The only thing holding it back is the historical subject matter and the no-holds-barred approach that will surely limit its audience. From an emotional aspect, the film is extraordinarily uncomfortable and disturbing to watch; however, from a filmmaking perspective, it’s a thing of beauty. The two sides of my brain were at war the entire time.

Set in 1825 Tasmania, the opening scenes are ominous and cloaked in dread – even though nothing has happened (yet). We just feel it in our bones … things are about to go wrong. And oh my, do they ever go wrong. Now you are likely similar to me in that your knowledge of 1825 Tasmanian history is quite limited. This was the era of “The Black War”. The British were in the midst of colonizing the country. Violence was prevalent towards women, native Aboriginals, and even the land and existing culture.

Clare (Aisling Franciosi, “The Fall”) is a young Irish woman, recently married with a newborn. She has served her 7 year sentence for theft (likely food for survival) and is now an improperly indentured servant to the ambitious and quietly despicable Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin, THE HUNGER GAMES). Clare is headstrong, but wise enough to understand her place. Her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby, HACKSAW RIDGE) lacks the same judgement and his foolish attempts to deal directly with Hawkins results in the atrocity that leads to the core of the story.

When her pleas for justice fall on the deaf ears of the British military, Clare’s need for vengeance transforms her into a woman-obsessed. Due to the harsh elements of the Tasmanian forest, Clare reluctantly agrees to hire an equally reluctant Aboriginal tracker/guide. Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) takes the job, and the two have little respect for each other as the trek begins. As a female Irish convict, Clare was treated poorly by the British, yet she somehow views herself as superior to Billy. On the other hand, Billy lumps all white people into the category of those to hate and distrust. This pair make quite a statement on racism, classism and pre-judging others. Of course, as their journey continues, their similar backgrounds and commonalities are revealed, bringing these two broken people closer together and building mutual respect.

This is a part of history that Australia understandably doesn’t work to keep in the forefront. But the atrocities were very real and Ms. Kent’s film never shies away from the gut-punch of a moment. And though it takes place during this dark period with numerous appalling characters, the core element to the Clare’s story is determining the consequences and price of seeking vengeance. How does one hold on to compassion and humanity while trapped in an environment that is barely survivable? Does violence truly beget violence? Is there another way? One of the most striking elements of the story is the contrast of mindless slaughter against the intimacy of vengeance. The British soldiers seem to pay little mind to their victims, while Clare is an emotional wreck when violence is required. It’s quite a thought-provoking debate.

This is the first leading role for Aisling Franciosi and she is a marvel. Clare is quite a complex character and Ms. Franciosi is remarkable … as is her singing voice. Also impressive is the performance of Baykali Ganambarr as Billy. Known as a stage performer, this is Mr. Ganambarr’s first film role and he is terrific and believable as a young man looking to move on from a life that hasn’t been kind or fair. Other key supporting roles include Damon Herriman (“Justified”) as Hawkins’ right hand man, and Charlie Shotwell (CAPTAIN FANTASTIC) as young Eddie. All performances are strong, and filmmaker Kent was obviously attuned to presenting the authenticity of the period, even down to the spoken language. The costumes never look like something out of a Hollywood warehouse and cinematographer Radek Ladczuk captures the harshness of the land and brutality of the people. It’s a gripping tale focused on the reaction to the deepest of personal loss. The reward is there for those brave enough to give it a watch.

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THE BABADOOK (2014)

December 7, 2014

babadook Greetings again from the darkness. There is nothing more frightening than the thoughts that occur within the recesses of our own mind. And therein lies the problem with so many “horror” movies. We may squirm and cover our eyes while watching the latest slasher film, but to stick with us as real horror, a film must tap into those internal, psychological fears that we each carry. This first feature film from writer/director Jennifer Kent does that so effectively that I am hesitant to write much more than … go see this one (but of course, I will).

Ms. Kent has fully developed her award winning short film Monster from 2005. With a limited budget of around $2 million, she has figured out a way to utilize many horror staples: a misfit child, the family dog, an old house with creaky floors and doors, a musty basement, old reliables like under the bed and in the closet, open windows, and the always effective knocks on the door. Combine these touches with an incredibly creepy and dramatically graphically illustrated children’s book, and terrific characters in the mom and her young son, and all the elements are in place for a suspenseful and terrifying film that is a throwback to the good old days.

It’s easy to spot the influences of such classics as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), and Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), but Ms. Kent has her own style with the camera and expertly creates an atmosphere of widely disparate mood swings grounded in believable characters. Essie Davis (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions) delivers an extraordinary performance as Amelia, whose husband died en route to the hospital as she gave birth to their son. Noah Wiseman plays Samuel, the now 7 year old boy who has behavioral issues, fears the monster under his bed, and recognizes the resentment his mom feels towards him as a constant reminder of the death that occurred on the day of his birth. Wiseman looks like a cross between Elijah Wood in Witness and Danny in The Shining … only he is much more energetic and animated than either of those characters.

The suspense builds as Amelia’s lack of sleep progressively wears her down, as her job and parenting responsibilities rob her of any down time or relaxation. She can’t even get through a solo release in bed without her frightened son barging in for security. The dynamic between mother, son and dead husband/father elevate this to a level of psychological thrills that we don’t often get on screen. There are so many superb moments to “enjoy”. The amount of blood present is minimal, especially in comparison to modern day slashers. It’s much more about how grief and stress can affect us in sinister ways. In addition to the influences already listed, there is also a tip of the cap to pioneer Georges Mêlies and his use of magic in the early days of film. Babadook may be an anagram for “a bad book”, but it’s also now synonymous with a really good horror movie!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a true horror film fanatic

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you already sleep with the lights on

watch the trailer: