Morals are a funny thing. As far as humanity goes, they serve to distinguish us from the lower, more bestial forms of life. With that said, it has long been an illusion that they keep humans from behaving like beasts whenever it suits them. In desperate times and harrowing circumstances we are all at the mercy of our worst instincts, and it is with this heavy message that The Nightingale arrives.
Set in Tasmania in the 19th century, The Nightingale is an unflinching nightmare of colonialism, imperialism, and the utter havoc they unleash on the people at their mercy. One such person is Clare. An Irish prisoner sent to serve out her sentence in a barely settled colony, Clare seeks freedom from a British Lieutenant named Hawkins. Unfortunately, Hawkins’ favor for Clare extends itself into a nasty series of rapes and an outburst of horrific violence.
This leads into the central plot, in which Clare tracks Hawkins and his subordinates through the Tasmanian wilderness in an effort to exact revenge. This is where The Nightingale first begins to wade into the subject of moral ambiguity, drawing increasingly blurry lines between the protagonists and antagonists of the film.
While Clare is a sympathetic character deserving of justice, she has no qualms at all in looking down upon the guide she hires to lead her through the wilderness. Billy, a local aboriginal man, has barely a hut to live in and is mistreated by all of the caucasians he encounters, be they English, Irish, or otherwise. Clare is no exception to this rule, calling him a savage, a black, and “boy” for much of the film.
It isn’t until she is forced to rely on him, time and time again, that she begins to respect him. Helpless to make her way through the treacherous brush of Tasmania on her own, Clare needs Billy. Billy, for his part, does not need Clare, and has his own judgments for the “white devils” who have taken everything from him. Stolen from his tribe as a boy, Billy lost his culture, his family, and even his name to the horrors of his “civilized” conquerors.
Through their shared experiences of trauma and misery, however, Clare and Billy are able to slowly see the value in one another, and in their shared struggle to visit retribution on those who have wronged them. However, even this hope for justice is eventually mired in scarlet layers of murky morality.
When Clare is finally able to exact revenge on the soldier who murdered her baby, it is an ugly affair. A tense, bloody struggle, Clare’s first act of revenge involves chasing a wounded man up a hill and tackling him, before shooting, stabbing, and finally bludgeoning him to death. Unfortunately for Clare, the horrors of this murder only add more fuel to the trauma that haunts her throughout The Nightingale. Now, she is visited with horrific flashbacks of her revenge, along with her rape and the murder of her husband and daughter.
This lack of an easy answer for violence, the kind we would normally find in revenge movies, is one of The Nightingale‘s greatest strengths. The standard manner with which a film like this would tackle these issues would be to have the victim get her revenge, and the villains receive a brutal comeuppance. After that we roll credits, and leave the theater (or our couch) content with the notion that justice is done.
However, writer-director Jennifer Kent is not satisfied with these easy answers, hence the moral ambiguity. Even the barest research into the subject suggests that the deaths of those responsible for violent, horrific acts rarely brings the satisfaction that the victims hope it will. So Kent wallows in the muddy, ugliness of it all, rather than offering us the comforting platitudes and easy answers we might crave.
There are many other avenues that are shaped by moral ambiguity in The Nightingale. For example, the cruel Hawkins is only made worse by his trek through the wilderness. Another victim of this cruelty is a child prisoner named Eddie. Survivalism is a common theme in brutal stories like this, but Eddie’s corruption and eventual destruction are among the film’s toughest scenes to stomach.
Taken under Hawkins’ wing throughout the film, Irish prisoner Eddie is eventually trusted enough to receive a gun and a rank from his mentor. Overjoyed at his prospects, Eddie sees the cruelty and brutality of Hawkins as a means to an end. If he is part of the side doing the evil deeds rather than on the receiving end of them, perhaps he can escape his life of subjugation. Eddie, however, lacks the hard-heartedness to murder an aboriginal in cold blood, and is shot down, weeping, by Hawkins as a result.
Still, not all of The Nightingale‘s characters are victims of unfathomable terror and abject misery. Two British settlers take pity on Clare and Billy during their journey, and while their dinner together is not without tension, they are ultimately decent folk. They offer their help and withhold their judgment, for the most part. This third side of the moral spectrum shows that amid all of the turmoil, there are indeed people who are just trying to get by. Left out of the bloody struggles and nasty subjugation of imperialism, these people are not so different from those unfortunate enough to be outside of Britain’s scope of respect.
Moral ambiguity is a fascinating, and versatile tool in storytelling. Responsible for some of the most powerful, and fondly remembered stories of our time, an unsure moral footing leads us to wonder about the history we have been taught, the world which we live in, and who we ourselves might become under such awful circumstances.
The Nightingale, in its depictions of lawlessness, poverty, subjugation, brutality, and depravity, offers a glimpse into a world that most of us are lucky enough to have never seen for ourselves. These are ugly traumas, but for many of us they are a part of our history. Ignoring them does us no favors, even if witnessing them fills us with a shame we’d rather not attach to the past.