Pros: Oyelowo at least tries to generate interest…
Cons: …but his efforts of undermined by a script that’s entirely predictable and lacks genuine insight.
Made for HBO and first aired in 2015, Nightingale is virtually a one-man-show that tells the story of army veteran Philip Snowden. From the opening moments of the film, it’s clear that something’s not altogether right with Snowden: he lives in his childhood home with his mother and works at a nearby supermarket, but he’s become dangerously obsessed with trying to reconnect with an army buddy named Edward. Initially, Snowden’s infatuation with Edward seems relatively innocent: the guy appears to be having trouble adjusting back to civilian life, and maybe just wants to try and work out some of his issues with the help of a friend. As time goes on however, the viewer realizes that Snowden’s interest in Edward virtually governs the way he goes about his everyday life, making it problematic that Edward’s (off-screen and never seen nor heard) wife has precisely no interest in letting her husband talk to him. I should also say that Philip used to live with his mother, because she’s never seen in the film and a viewer quickly puts the pieces together as to why.
Writer Frederick Mensch clearly wanted to create a portrait of a mentally unstable character with his work here, and while this may be a noble cause, it’s simply handled poorly in the case of Nightingale. The script is predictable to the point of being a virtual cut and paste copy of other films: I knew exactly what was going to happen by the end of this story and spent the whole time watching it waiting for certain key events to happen. Some might find there to be a few gasp-inspiring moments here, but I was more fighting off the urge to yawn. I also don’t particularly think Nightingale provided much of a genuine insight into mental illness: Snowden’s instability almost seemed like a convenient plot device used to make an entirely predictable and generally forgettable picture more “edgy.” This is also (perhaps especially) true in the case of Snowden’s heavily implied homosexuality; I imagine some people were turned off by the character’s sexual orientation alone, but I found it more problematic that this was another film (like, say, Silence of the Lambs) dealing with a disturbed non-heterosexual. I can almost picture the writer and director rubbing their hands together at the thought of making a film about a gay, mentally deteriorating black man – if that doesn’t get a viewer’s attention, then what would?
Considering the fact that only one character is seen throughout the whole film, I guess writer Mensch and director Elliott Lester can at least breathe a sigh of relief that they cast someone capable of literally carrying the film – to a degree. David Oyelowo, who gained immediate attention for playing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in 2014’s Selma, really gets to flex his chops playing Snowden. It’s very clear that Oyelowo had stage experience prior to his role here, and it’s a good thing too – this role all but required that sort of an exaggerated performance since it literally was the only real point of interest throughout the 85-minute film. Even if the inclusion of moments where Snowden talks to a webcam and the unseen, mostly unacknowledged viewers of this video log seem a bit gimmicky, Oyelowo does as good a job as the script allows at letting a viewer into the mind of his character. Snowden’s mood literally flips on a dime: one second he’s candidly singing showtunes or dancing around his house, the next he’s smashing everything in his dining room with a baseball bat, and the viewer does wind up feeling for the guy. After everything, the incredibly lonely Snowden just wants to be with the person he loves, but it seems like achieving that goal and acquiring some level of happiness is all but impossible for him – largely due to his own erratic behavior and poor choice of actions.
Aside from Oyelowo’s acting, the ominous and gloomy atmosphere of the film may be its strongest aspect. The Snowden character clearly has a rather twisted sense of religious fervor to him: it’s clear that faith plays an important part in his life and his behavior – at least when he’s somewhat rational. It’s also the thing which all but doomed him and his attempt to reconnect with Edward: Snowden’s devout mother absolutely forbid him to invite Edward into her house since she found their homosexual relationship to be intolerable. It’s appropriate then that crosses other religious knick-knacks lurk in the corner of almost every frame in the film, working to establish the almost overpowering iconography that surrounds Snowden as he slowly loses his mind. For the opening half hour or so, director Lester and cinematographer Pieter Vermeer keep focusing the flowing camera on a closed bedroom door, daring the viewer to work out what may lie behind it. Even if solving this riddle doesn’t exactly take rocket science, any semblance of ambiguity is welcome in a film that offers a viewer few surprises as it heads down the stretch. Finally, I should say that Mark D. Todd’s plodding music score works perfectly in the context of this film, creating a definitively unsettling mood.
Ultimately, Nightingale is capably made, but that’s about what I would expect from an HBO movie. What I didn’t anticipate was how undeniably pointless this film was: there’s absolutely no doubt how the story is going to play out from its opening moments, and I didn’t think the film offered anything new to onscreen depiction of mental illness. A film like Lodge Kerrigan’s outstanding and unfortunately overlooked Clean, Shaven used all the aspects at its disposal, from the soundtrack to the disjointed visual style, to recreate what it was actual like to be suffering from a mental disorder. In comparison, the portrayal of this sort of condition in Nightingale (an effort that seems to borrow too many elements from Kerrigan’s film) feels artificial and almost forced: the actor at the heart of the film is clearly trying his damnedest to make things interesting, but he’s let down by the tiresome, cookie-cutter formula and lack of genuine insight. Truth be told, this is the sort of production that would get people talking (it was produced in part by Brad Pitt), but I think many viewers would be flat-out bored by it: Nightingale devotes significant screen time to seemingly insignificant events, and I simply got tired of watching Snowden talking on the phone. It’s to Oyelowo’s credit that this film is watchable in the first place, but his performance isn’t enough to justify this whole thing: it’s just a painfully mediocre movie.
3/10 : Fairly mild onscreen violence, but there are some disturbing implications in the film.
0/10 : Nothing doing, though the homosexuality of the main character may turn some people off.
4/10 : It’s another movie about a character with mental illness, but this is easily among the more forgettable films of its type.
“That’s when it happened. That’s when I snapped. I’m not ashamed though…not even sorry. See, I see now that my whole life has pointed towards this moment, and I’m so grateful for that. See, a moment of clarity is the rarest gift we’re given on this planet…I just wish there hadn’t of been so much blood…”