“The Nightingale” is a revenger’s tragedy made with the weight of history and a moral clarity that is absolute. It is unsparingly brutal because the world often is, even if we’d prefer our movies weren’t. And it understands the chain of human cruelty and the helixes of gender, race, and class entwined within. All things we’d rather avoid, but there are stories that demand we hear them and there are times we know we must.
On top of all that, this is a love story, if an unequal one (and one where the inequality is the point). “The Nightingale” takes place in 19th-century Tasmania, at the frayed far end of the British Empire, where the government and the military hold sway over settlers, transported convicts, and far below them on the ladder, Aboriginal Tasmanians. The top sees the bottom as less than human. The bottom sees the top as having long ago ceded its humanity for land and power.
In the middle is Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a convict Irishwoman who has had her term bought up by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), leader of the local outpost. She helps out with the garrison and has been allowed to marry another convict, Aiden (Michael Sheasby), have a child, and set up a farm. When Clare is raped by the lieutenant after having been brought out to sing for a visiting officer, it’s implied that this has long been part of the arrangement as well.
Those early scenes are intentionally grueling to watch, and writer-director Jennifer Kent films them literally head-on, the victim’s face filling the frame. Matters only get worse as the officer sees his chance to be promoted out of the rural backwater vanish and takes out his fury on Clare and her family with the aid of a sergeant, Ruse (Damon Herriman), and an appalled but complicit ensign, Jago (Harry Greenwood). Nearly deranged with grief, the surviving Clare vows to track Hawkins through the wilderness and kill him.
Kent made waves with her 2014 debut, “The Babadook,” a boogeyman-under-the-bed horror movie that was really about the psychological demons inside a grieving single mother. “The Nightingale” similarly subverts a familiar genre from within. Our desire to see Clare visit bloody mayhem on her tormentors is complicated right at the outset of the journey, when she hires on a young, cynical Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to guide her through the bush.
We have knowledge of the genocidal depredations visited on Billy’s people by the British, even if Clare doesn’t, and at least part of the narrative of “The Nightingale” concerns the opening of her eyes and heart along with ours. Kent is Australian, she knows her history, and she knows there’s much reckoning to be had. A scene in which Hawkins’s military party comes upon an Aboriginal woman and her son in the wild makes the audience feel as though they’re present at a crime, and so they are. But the screenplay and the filmmaking set the atrocities in a wider context of conquest and subjugation that is national, entitled, and male.
The catch is that Kent is a born moviemaker, and whenever you may feel “The Nightingale” tilting toward didacticism, which it does from time to time, the dramatic urgency of the story and characters straightens it right back up. Franciosi, a little-known Irish-Italian actress (she had a few flashback scenes as Jon Snow’s mother in the final season of “Game of Thrones”), is set up as the film’s implacable motor, and the sorrow that transmutes into white-hot fury keeps Clare going for at least two-thirds of the film, through at least one scene of gruesome payback.
Yet there’s much more going on here than a Tarantino-style settling of scores with a feminist veneer. At a certain point, “The Nightingale” shifts its center from Clare to Billy (only we know his actual name is Mangana, since Clare doesn’t speak his subtitled language) and Kent widens her scope from the injuries done to women to the crimes done to an entire people, crimes in which Clare herself is not entirely absolved. Yet the gentleness of feeling that grows between the bereft convict and her smart, sympathetic native tracker gives this movie its necessary heart even as Kent balances all her characters and their actions on a vast moral scale.
“The Nightingale” strives to be an epic and pulls it off, even if there are one or two false summits before the final scenes. It’s painful to watch because the truth is often painful, especially when so many myths of empire have accreted around it. If violence is neededto chip away at those myths, and to reveal the systemic cruelty at its core, Kent’s willing to do so, and in the name of genre storytelling that gradually slips its skin. There’s revenge to be had in “The Nightingale,” but it’s of a nation’s bloody past on its complacent present.
Written and directed by Jennifer Kent. Starring Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Sam Claflin. At Kendall Square. 136 minutes. R (strong graphic violent and disturbing content including rape, language throughout, and brief sexuality)