Jose Saenz’s review published on Letterboxd:
On balance, there’s a lot to admire in Jennifer Kent’s otherwise fussy and cartoonish sophomore effort THE NIGHTINGALE. It’s a loud, unflinching, and deeply disturbing tale of a woman suffering against the hopeless weight of British-controlled Diemen’s Land, yet the few bursts of quiet stillness is what sticks out the most. Beautifully capturing dead trees against gray skies, empty woods amidst twilight, and shimmering stars as all we can watch as our protagonist get the hell beat out of her. It’s these scenes where the film speaks volumes about trauma, where everything is hopeless and all you can do is stare into space and hope it’ll end as painlessly as possible.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t seem as confident of itself as it think it is. Despite solid direction and performances - including a wonderful Aisling Franciosi in the central role - the movie doubles down on on-the-nose dialogue, cartoonishly evil antagonists, and flimsy racial/colonialist commentary to get its point across. I understand that it’s part of the time period, thus moral standards and racial politics are as murky as the forests they live among, but the tone is all over the map. Kent brilliantly captures the urgency and trauma of our protagonist, but overdoes it with the excessive violence. At times it straddles between hilariously inept and ludicrously excessive, which goes against the films serious tone.
And then there’s the racial politics. Clair’s revenge trip involves hiring a black guide to help her cut through the terrain to capture her captors in time. Throughout their journey, the guide Billy (played by Baykali Ganambarr) argues with Clair about how fucked up colonialism is and how it took his entire family with them. It’s here where the film stumbles tremendously; discussing the racism is a novel idea, but having it go toe-to-toe with the plight of a woman’s suffering gets painfully awkward. “This is the real world” utters Clair almost condescendingly, in one of the few insensitive moments in the films already bloated runtime. It succeeds best at mixing KILL BILL and THE REVENANT, but its these scenes that dangerously reminds me of GREEN BOOK.
To be fair, the two play off better as the climax approaches, as the film slowly and beneficially crawls to a satisfying finish. And it is admirable that Kent finds sympathy for both of our characters as the atrocities stack up against him. But it’s still a mess and a bit of a slog. It tries to cut deep, but marks little wound. It cuts the fuss yet doesn’t get to the point. It takes too long yet never feels long enough. I can at least grant the film for it courage and intent, but it just barely gets to where it wants to be.