(director/writer: Jennifer Kent; cinematographer: Radek Ladczuk; editor: Simon Njoo; music: Jed Kurzel; cast: Aisling Franciosi (Clare), Sam Claflin (Lt. Hawkins), Baykali Ganambarr  (Billy), Damon Herriman (Corporal Ruse), Harry Greenwood (Jago), Michael Sheasby (Aidan), Ewen Leslie (Goodwin), Charlie Shotwell (Eddie), Charlie Jampijinpa Brown (Uncle Charlie), Magnolia Maymuru (Lowanna); Runtime: 137; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Kristina Ceyton, Bruna Papandrea, Steve Hutensky, Jennifer Kent; IFC Films; 2018)

“Franciosi’s electric performance is chilling and holds things together when things seem to be teetering towards the end.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The film tile is a reference to the heroine’s singing voice. The dark period drama is a moody revenge tale and eventually something more complex about patriarchal societies abusing women and the evils of colonization. It’s by the talented Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook”). It’s a haunting film marked by trauma and horrific violence. It’s set in 1825 in the Tasmania Outback.

The 21-year-old Clare (Aisling Franciosi, Italian-Irish actress) is a wronged Irish convict serving a seven year sentence for theft in a British penal colony, who has an infant and is married to the gentle Aidan (Michael Sheasby). Her family is also imprisoned by the same undisciplined company of English soldiers. The soldiers are on a mission of semi-genocidal land clearance on the indigenous peoples.

Clare is incarcerated on Van Diemen’s Land. She’s released from the prison after completing her sentence only to be illegally enslaved by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), a sadistic British officer, who is awed by her beauty and makes her his servant.The officer is upset with the military because he’s been passed over for promotions numerous times and is stationed in such a desolate place. Out of frustration he brutalizes both his underlings and the prisoners in his charge. This includes Claire, whom he nicknames The Nightingale after he forces her to be his personal songbird. Because he cravenly believes she owes him for being released to his charge, he and his fellow soldiers brutally gang rape her in front of her family before killing them. But Clare survives the ordeal.

When the inept Hawkins journeys to the nearest township with the boorish Corporal Ruse (Damon Herriman) and the soldier Jago (Harry Greenwood), as well as with some slave prisoners, they cross the wilderness as Hawkins goes to demand from his superiors a promotion. The vengeful-minded Clare hires the native tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr, a dancer) to follow him and for them to kill him. Their hatred of the British soldiers gives them reason to be allies, despite Billy thinking of her as a white woman, someone who has the same color of skin as his oppressors. How the two unite out of convenience and get their prey, becomes the focus of this maddening film on violence.

The education of Clare comes about as she sees for the first time that the dehumanizing efforts of the British Empire on the native population is racist and not right.

The power of the film is tainted with too many false endings and speechifying, but Franciosi’s electric performance is chilling and holds things together when things seem to be teetering towards the end.

REVIEWED ON 12/22/2019  GRADE: B+