Our pick of the week is a brutal, uncompromising journey into the darkest recesses of Australia’s hidden colonial past. It may well be the best local film of the year.
Movie of the week: The Nightingale
After the success of The Babadook, Jennifer Kent could have done anything. Another scary crowd-pleaser, say… something that would have cemented her reputation as a “hot new talent” while putting money in the bank. But nope, the fearless South Australian writer-director chose to risk everything with her second feature – and introduce us to something far more horrifying than the imaginary demon of her terrifying first feature – our own history. But you need to understand this: The Nightingale takes no prisoners, there are no “safe spaces.” It left audiences at early festival screenings gasping – prompting jeers and walkouts. If any film needs a trigger warning couched in the strongest terms, then this is it.
Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict in Tasmania, back when it was called Van Diemen’s Land in the early days of the brutal British occupation that wiped out most of the island’s indigenous population. Early on she’s viciously raped, her baby killed and her husband slaughtered. That’s no spoiler, it happens ten minutes in and if you can sit through that, you won’t look away again. What follows will be seared into your memory forever – a blistering revenge thriller of primeval power and brutal urgency that burns with righteous anger. It’s set in a stunningly beautiful cold wilderness too, and has the same ferocious chill as The Revenant. Only this time the story has a point.
Clare’s ordeal was clearly just the climax of a series of degradations at the hands of a British officer called Hawkins (an utterly loathsome Sam Claifin). That act stole everything from her, even her humanity – the only thing left in her heart is a cold and pitiless desire for blood and vengeance. Hawkins takes off for Launceston accompanied a couple of doltish but equally monstrous underlings including Damon Herriman (who really does need to talk to his agent about getting roles as a nicer man!) and Clare follows in pursuit, enlisting the help of an Aboriginal tracker called Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). Kidnaps him really, calls him “boy” and treats him with the same coloniser’s contempt that she herself has had to endure as a female convict. To Billy, this mad white woman is no better than the imperialist dogs who have killed his people and stolen their land, and it’s here that Kent first signals her intentions. Audaciously, she pours a bucket of cold water over today’s identify politics pieties on gender and race, the ones that arthouse audiences so like to comfort themselves with… Many of those people simply won’t forgive her – hence the walkouts.
But as the horrors mount up, both Billy and Clare come to see each other and their relationship to their joint tormentors differently. The ending may not deliver the sort of satisfaction some will want – but it does do something far more profound and lasting. It’s closing scene on the beach as the sun rose left me stunned, but then I could hardly focus on it through tears. Kent has not only proved herself to be a superb storyteller, but may well have made the most important film on Australian race relations ever. It’s certainly the bravest – please do note the rating. R18+ from Aug 29 Local cinemas include Palace Norton St and Dendy Newtown. ★★★★1/2
Arthouse pick: Dogman
Who doesn’t love dogs? Sure there are some out there who don’t, but most of us have a secret soft spot for man’s best friend – simply because, well that’s what they are – faithful, loyal, funny, eager-to-please and unlike our lifetime (human) partners, always happy to see us no matter what injustice we’ve done to them in the past. But they also have a darker side. If, say, they get locked up in a house with their master after he’s died (and this sort of thing does happen) with no food, how long before their own needs take over replacing all past loyalties? And… well, I’m not going to spell it out, but the answer is – not as long as you think!
Matteo Garrone clearly thinks men act like dogs. His hero Marcello (Marcello Fonte, who won best actor at Cannes for this role) even has the dopey hang-dog looks of a sad pooch, a nondescript mutt – certainly no pedigree hound… He runs a dog-grooming and boarding business in a sad Italian coastal town near Naples which has fallen on hard times. Who knows what brought it to its knees – government corruption, organised crime, recession, a war maybe – but the town’s crumbling buildings, peeling facades and rubbish-strewn beach playgrounds make it almost a character in the film in its own right. Surely somewhere so colourfully shabby couldn’t exist anywhere – and certainly not support a business like Marcello’s. But then he sells cocaine as a sideline under the protection of town’s resident thug Simone (Edoardo Pesce). And if he was a dog he’d be a massive, mad snarling pit-bull – one that should have been put down at birth. The whole town runs like a dog pack, and Garrone deftly lays out the operational hierarchy – who is loyal to who, who gets to eat the best leftovers, who sniffs whose bum… Clearly Marcello is the runt.
This is the second movie this week to focus on revenge. For things take a turn for the worse when Simone forces Marcello into a criminal venture which severs the pattern of loyalties that guide his life – leading to a horrific act of retributive violence. Garrone has based the story on a gruesome true-life crime from the 80s, one that shocked Italy, and at first glance, the director seems to be replicating elements of his best-known film, the gangster epic Gomorrah. But apart from its decaying locale and its vicious social milieu, the two films have little in common. If it wasn’t all so bleak, Dogman would almost be a comedy in comparison, and it could be seen that way – a blackly funny shaggy dog story delivering some slyly humorous moments along with the eye-opening surprises.
Like a lot of serious Italian filmmakers, who tend to be a curiously cynical and acerbic lot – Garrone serves us a dark vision of contemporary Italy completely at odds with its benign tourist image of picturesque hill-towns and friendly trattorias. One thing for sure – no one would ever want to visit this dog-eat-dog world. MA15+ from Aug 29. Local cinemas include Palace Norton St, Central and Dendy Newtown ★★★★
Not much chance of lightening up this week, with two more dark and dirty crime thrillers opening focusing on men (Dragged Across Concrete) and women (The Kitchen) behaving badly, atrociously actually. The first stars Mel Gibson as a casually racist rogue cop, the second Elisabeth Moss, proving once again she’s the toughest, meanest girl in town.
But finally, an antidote to all that nastiness, pure bliss as the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin records the most successful gospel album of all time. Amazing Grace is only getting a limited release locally, but I defy anyone watching this trailer not to immediately seek it out. Reviews coming soon…