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Lady Vengeance

In The Nightingale, the director of The Babadook returns with a tale of real-life monsters.

David Edelstein

A SOCIETY IS MEASURED by how it treats its most vulnerable, which is why images of suffering or injured children feature so prominently in accounts of human-rights abuses: Even the most calloused or bigoted onlooker has a tough time saying, “Well, they brought this on themselves.” (Offered an opportunity to scold kids in cages at the border, our vice-president opted to blame the Democrats.) Deaths of children are at the heart of two graphically violent new movies, Jennifer Kent’s Australian-frontier revenge thriller, The Nightingale, and Waad al- Kateab and Edward Watts’s first-person documentary of the siege of Aleppo, For Sama—Sama being Waad’s baby daughter, whose existence haunts Waad as she films her husband (one of the few doctors remaining in East Aleppo) attempting to save yet another bomb-mangled child. In their vastly different ways, both films imply that to look away from the atrocities onscreen would be an act of historical cowardice. They shame you into bearing witness for the sake of the children.

But I did overcome my shame and look away from some images in The Nightingale, in part because it’s fictional and in part because it’s shaped like a meathead melodrama—though with odd last-act dissonances that might reflect Kent’s ambivalence. The setting is colonial Australia, on what’s now Tasmania, where the English use Irish prisoners as slaves and “civilize” the native population by exterminating it. The title character, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), is an Irish lass made to sing before a platoon of British soldiers, who listen to her beauteous trills while gazing on her like Sylvester does Tweety Bird. When she begs her aristocratic English patron, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), for permission to move away with her husband and adorable baby girl, he indignantly reminds her that she’s his property and, by way of demonstration, rapes her. After Clare’s husband gets uppity, Hawkins and two underlings (one slobbery, one decent enough to blanch) descend on the family’s shack and do just about the worst thing you can ever do to anyone and at gruel ing length.

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July 22 - August 4, 2019