PLOT In a 19th-century Australian colony, a white woman and an Aboriginal man team up to hunt a murderer.
CAST Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Sam Claflin
RATED R (brutal violence)
PLAYING AT Roslyn Cinemas, Village Cinema Greenport
BOTTOM LINE A flawed but compelling combination of historical drama and revenge thriller.
Jennifer Kent's "The Nightingale," a tale of power and violence in Colonial Australia, is a period piece that gets tangled up in modern-day sensibilities. Its heroes are an Irish woman and an Aboriginal man who turn against their oppressors. What begins as a gripping, gritty drama, though, runs up against a tricky question: Whose story should this be? More precisely, which should take priority: color or gender?
Initially, "The Nightingale" focuses solely on Claire (Aisling Franciosi), an Ireland-born convict finishing out her seven-year sentence on the island of Van Diemen's Land, the brutal Australian colony now known as Tasmania. She's under the charge of Lieutenant Hawkins, a proud and ambitious man, played by an excellent Sam Claflin, who has no intention of setting her free. Claire is exactly his type: young, pretty and powerless.
In a difficult-to-watch scene, Hawkins and two pals commit several acts of shocking brutality and leave Claire for dead. She rises, though, and sets off with horse and shotgun to find them. Franciosi is terrific in this crucial transitional moment, a delicate bird-like creature who suddenly radiates the ice-cold wrath of an Eastwood or Gibson anti-hero.
"The Nightingale" becomes a richer story but also loses focus with the introduction of Billy, an Aboriginal man Claire hires as a tracker. Played by non-professional actor Baykali Ganambarr in a winningly guileless performance, Billy provides Claire with something new: a competing claim to victimhood. The two hate each other's color, and everything they think it stands for, but as they fight for survival (the film was shot in the tangled wilds of Tasmania), they find common ground.
Because Hawkins is so clearly a stand-in for the evils of colonialism, "The Nightingale" faces the question of who has the greater grievance against him: the white woman or the Aboriginal man? Which should triumph, and in what way? Writer-director Kent (of 2014's startling horror-hit "The Babadook") seems unsure how to handle this. Her ultimate choice, and her execution, provide an only semi-satisfying conclusion to an otherwise riveting film.