In the year since The Nightingale, the Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent's follow-up to 2014's The Babadook, first bowed on the festival circuit, the advance word has been singular and insistent: it's tough. Tough enough to have provoked walkouts and rather shellshocked reviews; so tough that British distributors proved reluctant to take it on. Now that it has distribution care of those hardy souls at Vertigo Releasing - no strangers to aggro (The Football Factory) or grisliness (Pudsey the Dog: The Movie) - what are the rest of us going to make of it? My own feeling is that The Nightingale would seem less tough if Fred Schepisi's 1978 landmark The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith had remained in steady circulation these past four decades, but it's tough nevertheless, as if Kent were hellbent on taking revenge on those who appropriated the Babadook as a cutesy LGBTQ+ icon - a statement that she's a serious creative, not a mere maker of memes. Practically the last moment of tenderness in the film arrives five minutes in, when our heroine Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict woman working as a servant in colonial Tasmania, sings a song for the British troops stationed at her outpost: here, Kent appears to be picking up where Kubrick left off at the conclusion of Paths of Glory. A few minutes later, once we've witnessed Clare being slapped around and worse besides by Hawkins (Sam Claflin), the outpost's brusque lieutenant, all that Kubrick stuff begins to feel like consoling rationale. Any responsible review of The Nightingale will have to scatter trigger warnings to the wind; there are scenes where Kent seems to be saying "try memeing this".
After the international success of her self-contained debut, Kent has earned the right to flex her muscles and push the boundaries: the new film duly leaves behind the dingy house in which we found The Babadook's mother-and-child and strikes out to explore the dark corners of a far wider country and history. The Nightingale's abiding theme is that colonialism was an assumption of control - and, within that control, superiority and dominance - over a people and place; Clare's Irishness allows Kent to address two sets of troubles simultaneously, and she forges another disquieting link between the plundering of a landscape and other forms of rape. The context is established in a coiled first half-hour, essentially a series of deferred confrontations between individuals jostling for position and those who have no status, which then erupts in an ordeal scene played out to the screams of an infant. That first half-hour is the film in miniature; thereafter, The Nightingale expands in scope while continuing to look upon the same cruel and unjust power dynamics. Once Clare rides out in pursuit of the men who raped her and killed her husband and child, picking up boozy indigenous tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to steer her, the film doesn't relax exactly: there's still tension between the black man and the white woman, and the bodies of natives strung up from the trees signal what lies in wait for at least one of the pair should their progress be halted. Yet it does reset a little, allowing for a few gulps of fresh air while we wait for a fateful, bloody recrossing of paths. One of the points Kent makes about colonialism: whoever you were at this time in this place, you couldn't unwind for long.
Some of the criticism of The Nightingale has focused on whether it was wise of the director to look at colonial history through the scuffed and smeary lens of the rape-revenge cycle, as opposed to the dreamy Panavision gaze a David Lean might apply. That line smacks of snobbishness: it suggests it was unseemly of Kent to make a punk movie about the past - or, worse still, that the past should always be prettied up for general consumption. Very little about Kent's film could be claimed as pretty. There's a particular crudeness in the characterisation of the British officers, whose ingrained chauvinism comes to seem like one of their better qualities. Yet the actors smuggle intriguing contrasts between Kent's lines. Where Claflin's Hawkins - plainly a man who can't control a damn thing, least of all his libido - displays flickers of regret about what he does, Damon Herriman's leering Ruse is possessed of no such reservations; and there's a third, junior party, Jago (Harry Greenwood), who evidently wishes he'd never been sent here in the first place. Clare herself is hardly a pristine avenging angel, instead bruised and ragged - as scarred as the landscape she comes tearing hell-for-leather out of - and there is a sense that those first-act traumas, coupled to a residual sleeplessness, are turning her into a monster, too. If our sympathies fall easily here, then they land on Ganambarr's Billy, who's taken to the bottle in a bid to quell such demons, and arrived at a dopey acceptance of the way things are - though the violence will also trickle down to him eventually. Everyone gets worse off the further they drift from what was already a brutally beaten track. Like they said: it's tough.
The question remains whether anyone needs a two-and-a-quarter hour rape-revenge saga, an I Take a Running Jump Through Time and Space to Spit on Your Grave. One of The Nightingale's unresolved tensions is that it's a genre movie that assumes an epic form: even set out in a clipped 4:3 Academy ratio - the better to avoid Leanisms - it can seem a touch patchy for its chosen canvas. The ninety-minute second act is a woodland runaround reminiscent of so much horror fare, albeit with the protagonists wearing period garb and a copy of Kevin Gilbert's Because a White Man'll Never Do It sitting close to the camera. There are elements that feel tricksy, or a bit too much like rugpulling, such as the heroine's nightmares, which carry Kent back towards Babadook territory: the reality set before us is harsh and terrifying enough. And for all its roaming around, The Nightingale ultimately tells us less about the colonial mindset than Warwick Thornton's recent Sweet Country, which likewise took a popular genre form (there, the Western), but moved more decisively over similar ground. Still, what it does convey is socked over: I can't deny I emerged from The Nightingale shaken on some level, and Kent's apprenticeship in horror would seem crucial to that effect. When it comes down to it - when these characters are standing face to face, eye to petrified eye - Kent makes this violence count and linger, and that's why many have found the experience of The Nightingale so tough. Yet if you find this tough, it's almost certainly no tougher than colonialism itself; if you find this an ordeal, Kent would insist, then you should count yourself lucky you weren't around at the time.
The Nightingale is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon.