Tom Augustine reviews the weekend in film
As far as sophomore efforts from film-makers building off buzzed-about debuts, they don't get much more daring or divisive than The Nightingale (R16), Jennifer Kent's follow-up to modern horror classic The Babadook. I'm always fascinated by the creative choices directors make when capitalising on the success of an earlier title and this year has had no shortage of strange, visionary, disquieting approaches, from David Robert Mitchell's Under the Silver Lake and Ari Aster's Midsommar, to Taika Waititi's forthcoming Jojo Rabbit. Kent's offering is profoundly different, a brutal, unsentimental depiction of the dehumanising conditions of colonial 1800s Tasmania. The Nightingale follows Clare (Aisling Franciosi, wonderful), a young Irish convict, as she seeks revenge on the soldiers who committed terrible crimes against her and her family. Alongside an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr, astonishing in a first-time performance), Clare pursues the soldiers through the rugged Australian bush, to nightmarishly violent ends.
The film has already proven controversial for its merciless sequences of violence and sexual assault, which occur repeatedly and unflinchingly throughout. Filmed in a boxy Academy ratio (in which the picture appears as a square rather than a rectangle), the effect is to create an exhausting prison of cruelty from the vivid imagery pouring off the screen - and mileage will ultimately vary according to viewers' willingness to undertake such an odyssey. I personally found the repetition of violence to be a fascinating tool in the talented visualist Kent's hands, removing any sensationalism from the acts, depicting them instead in a way that provides a stunning indictment of the roots of Australia's colonialist past. The result, ultimately, is something viscerally moving, a depiction of a pair of deeply wronged souls cast adrift by senseless evil, finding comfort and strength in each other's struggle. There's a riveting lack of sentimentality to their exchanges and the film offers little in the way of smooth edges or easy solutions. Long after I saw the film, I still find myself thinking of its beguiling rhythm and haunting imagery. Rating: Four and a half stars.
Also releasing this week, documentary Maiden (dir. Alex Holmes, M) tells the story of a woman undertaking a very different kind of odyssey of her own. Told through a mix of archival video footage and on-camera interviews, Maiden tells the story of Tracy Edwards, a 24-year-old cook on charter boats who, in 1989 became the skipper of the first all-female crew to sail around the world in the 1985-86 Whitbread Round the World Yacht race. Part thrilling ocean adventure, part fascinating portrait of the singular drive of its central subject, the film assembles a wonderfully eclectic cast of characters around its central figure for the big journey.
Though at times somewhat restricted by its structure, in which the figures explain step-by-step exactly what happened, the film nevertheless is a rollicking, exciting ride, buffeted by appreciably kitsch 80s video footage. For audiences on the hunt for a less demanding depiction of the trials and spiritual strength of never-say-die Australian women than Kent's offering, Maiden is a compelling, suspenseful nautical adventure of the stand-up-and-cheer variety. Rating: Three and a half stars.