There isn’t much comfort to be found in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale — and for good reason.
The follow-up to the writer and director’s 2014 psychological horror hit The Babadook, the film is a lacerating look at Australia’s colonisation, and has drawn an intense amount of both praise and ire. The film won the Special Jury Prize in Venice, received The Age’s critics prize at MIFF last month, and has been discussed as an “urgent” and “necessary” work. But The Nightingale’s unvarnished violence has also prompted sexist insults (directed at Kent) and frequent walkouts. I have seen the film twice, and both times women exited the cinemas sobbing.
“I think it’s a good thing,” Kent says about the confronting nature of her film. “Not everyone wants to feel difficult feelings, and examine those themselves. But that doesn’t mean there’s not importance in actually putting the truth on screen.”
The Nightingale lays bare the truth of Tasmania’s ugly history. The film takes place in 1825, during The Black War, a period of genocidal warfare in which much of Tasmania’s Indigenous people were killed — the population shrank from around 6000 to a few hundred in less than a century. Meanwhile, female convicts were making their way to the island to rectify the penal colony’s gender imbalance. Their brutalisation was common and routine: they were traded, disappeared without a trace, held in solitary confinement and sometimes punished for their own pregnancies that were the result of rape.
In the film, these experiences are explored through Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi), whose request to be released from indentured servitude by her master, the despotic British Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), boils into monstrous acts of violence.
Fuelled by rage, Clare pays Letteremairrener guide Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), to help track down Hawkins and his subordinates, so she can enact revenge.
Kent has pushed back on assertions that the film fits into the rape-revenge genre, a label that has stuck since the film premiered last year. “[Rape-revenge films] tend to work on a need for catharsis and a need for vindication. This film is exploring opposite themes and ideas, which is that vengeance provides very little, if any catharsis,” she says.
Critical discussion has also dwelled on the film’s stark, merciless treatment of sexual abuse and violence. Kent sees some of this discourse as another way in which the film has been misinterpreted. “To show violence doesn’t endorse violence, it’s all about motivation and context,” she says. “[The Nightingale is] a war film. I don’t think that someone who creates a war film has been questioned when someone’s shot down in the middle of a battlefield.”
“I think there is maybe a misunderstanding of the motivation behind the action from the film, and I might say, a bit of ignorance about Australian history — the fact that these things happened, and that they have far reaching effects into our society.”
Kent’s film is thoughtfully constructed. She collaborated closely with Aboriginal elder and playwright Jim Everett, and the film includes the reconstructed Indigenous language Palawa Kani; it’s the first time the language has been spoken on screen. In conversation, Kent frequently mentions historical accuracy as a driving force for her filmmaking, and explains the years of research and consultation with psychologists that went into handling scenes of sexual violence with sensitivity.
In these difficult scenes, Kent fills the screen with the victims’ confrontational gaze, forcing viewers to witness their pain.
“I wanted to focus on the faces of those women to be in their emotional experience,” Kent tells me. “I think [the scenes aren’t] actually as violent as people may remember them. They’re emotionally violent, they’re psychologically violent. They showed the truth of what’s happening. That was my focus.”
“People should be shocked and offended and appalled by any kind of violence, certainly sexual violence, because it is appalling. It is shocking,” Kent says.
The Nightingale nimbly maps out the cyclical, yet shifting hierarchies of cruelty under colonialism, but the dynamic between Clare and Billy is somewhat flawed. By nature of their story arc, the film lends itself to drawing false equivalencies between their starkly different experiences of oppression. As Larissa Behrendt observed in her review of the film for The Guardian, “In the end, there is no way to escape your own complicity when you are part of the colonial system — no matter how powerless you yourself are”.
I ask Kent what she would say to critics who take issue with how the film explores the colonisation of Indigenous land, while centering the story of an Irish convict. She balks at the question. “I wouldn’t say anything to those people because they’re ignorant of what [the film is] really about. I’m not interested in convincing anyone.”
Kent is uncompromising when it comes to her film. She is unwavering about her motivations and what she hopes to elicit in audiences. On that last point, Kent responds with something she once said in reference to The Babadook — that despite the horror, this is a film about love. By exposing the complete opposite of it, she is asking audiences to reckon with what is lost when compassion, kindness and empathy are disposed of.
“If we don’t have these qualities as humans,” Kent says, “if we don’t engender them in ourselves and elicit them in others, then we’re just wasting time and taking up space.”
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.
Isabella Trimboli is a writer and critic living in Birraranga/Melbourne. She tweets at @itrimboli.