This presentation may have gotten lost or never made if it wasn’t for its star. It is an interesting film, but one that is held together by a less than perfect script that is thankfully saved by the performance of the one and only on-screen character. Peter Snowden is that character and the actor who fleshes him out is David Oyelowo. Again, this writer feels that with some lesser actor in the role this film would never have survived.
David Oyelowo (pronounced oh-YEH-lo-wo) is a classically trained British actor of Nigerian heritage who has done quite well for himself with projects in America. You might recognize him from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Help, Red Tails, Lincoln, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Interstellar and certainly as the role of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. He has also been on HBO before an episode of THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY and HBO Miniseries: FIVE DAYS. In NIGHTINGALE he masterfully takes on the unraveling soul of Peter Snowden.
Peter is a war veteran, who after serving duty returns home to live with his mother. As this movie opens, however, we learn that Peter just lost it and killed her. Her not so fresh corpse lies in the bedroom amongst too much blood. The film starts there and spirals downward. In fact, it starts mid-thought as Peter has already committed the crime and is obviously mentally anguished. Exactly what drove him to that state is not made crystal clear. Evidently the story is not on how he got to this state, but how, in the course of a week, it quickly deteriorates from there. We do learn that is stems from the fact that it is because his mother would not allow him to invite an old Army buddy to visit. That friend is Edward, who quickly becomes an obsessive need for Peter. He needs, at all costs to see Edward. It is something that never happens, even though Peter thinks it well, so much to the point that he redecorates the house, and whips up a special dinner for the two of them and agonizes over what to wear.
One interesting moment occurs with Peter is on the phone with Edward. Now either this was a flaw in scripting or an unintentional gaffe, but it made the moment quite intense. Peter is using a Bluetooth devise and has apparently called his buddy to invite him over because of Peter’s passion to reconnect with him. We only hear Peter’s side of the conversation, but we learn that Edward has accepted the invitation. Did Peter ever really have that phone call or was he just imagining how the conversation would play out? The way the scene is shot with him sitting on the floor in a darkened hallway it makes you wonder. I, of course, like it better if he was just talking it all out to himself. It certainly plays into the ranting of a psychotic individual.
Snowden has a lot of conversations in the film. That’s obvious as the only person on-screen, I know, but there are not long silences throughout the film. He is always babbling. Some are with himself in the three-paneled vanity mirror that was his mother’s, some conversations are to the two fish in the topical tank. And there are others that are to some video blog site. He is truly unhinged, but not to the point of seeing things that aren’t there or talking to the devil. He also gets into phone calls that often go wrong. He talks to friends of his mother looking for her and he talks to his sister Vickie a lot. Are these conversations really happening? You have to ask since you are so unclear about the Edward phone call. Yes, I think they are actual dialogs.
They must be because there is another whole side of the story we don’t see. We don’t see how the outside world is responding to his behavior on the phone or the concern over the missing mother. Eventually we learn that the authorities are involved as a SWAT team makes headway into the house at the film’s end. Yes, this nightingale is caught in the end; it is all from Peter’s perspective as he hears that door broken in, the tramping of feet, the flashing of flashlights and the approach of armed men. Another interesting moment was when Peter takes a double barrel shotgun and removes the shells and purposefully positions himself in the window and mutters aloud if they see the gun he is holding. He is tired and at wit’s end and is ready to be caught. This bird is tired of singing.
At least I think he is the nightingale of the title. At least I think he is this caged little bird who loves to preen and hear himself sing. He puffs his chest and whistles his tune into the night to no one but himself. It sounds good anyway. Of course, I did not point out every plot point along the way or try to stress every emotional beat of the film. It is a claustrophobic, dark look at the thought processes of a disturbed man that still leaves us unclear as to why and how and yet still remains a good performance.
In conclusion I can say that this was a great little tour de force for David Oyelowo. For anyone to see it they will say that that guy can act indeed. But, by movie’s end I was left wondering how different this piece could have played out or been presented. I wasn’t dwelling so much of the great acting I just saw, but on how different and just as riveting it could have been given a stronger treatment. Using the video blogging bit was dumb, but the other props from the fishtank to the mirror worked well. There was even a moment when Peter attempts suicide, but he backs out of it without an explanation why. This nightingale sings an eerie, sad song into the night that will catch your attention, but in the light of the next day it has faded away.
Well, the above featurette states that some of those phone calls could have been imaginary. Cool. HBO Films: NIGHTINGALE still airs on HBO on 06.04 at 2:00pm & 11:35pm; 06.06 at 10:00pm; 06.07 at 5:00am; 06.09 at 11:00am & 7:30pm; 06.15 at 9:00pm and 06.17 at 3:15pm. It also airs on the HBO2 and the west coast feed as well as on HBOGo/Now.