Jennifer Kent’s brutal and harrowing second film is a powerful rape-revenge period drama that explores themes of exploitation and agency. It left me reeling.
A world away from her debut, the entertaining horror flick The Babadook, the film has caused outrage and walk-outs for its repeated scenes of sexual violence, not least because of an intense, pivotal gang-rape sequence. The scene in question is extremely disturbing and justifiably so, but Kent’s expert handling ensures that it is neither salacious nor gratuitous, no matter how lengthy and horrific. Its inclusion is entirely necessary and justified for the film’s themes and purpose.
Superficially the plot resembles any number of revenge genre movies and indeed the initial scenes suggest that The Nightingale will be no different. The protagonist Clare Caroll (Aisline Franciosi) is set up as loving, kind, delicate and maternal, a young innocent with a gentle singing voice and who carries her burdens selflessly. Her vulnerability is signalled early when we see her defensively grasping for a knife at the sound of an unexpected rustle in woods. In other words the soft, innocent female at threat. However, Clare is far from the template victim despite the horrific traumas she endures; she is granted agency and dignity, and is fully defined complete with human flaws and contradictions.
Clare is an Irish convict, having just served her time and now due her letter of recommendation that would grant Clare, her husband and baby their freedom. However, that dispensation is at the whim of British Army Lieutenant Hawkins, played with cruel ambition by Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games films and Snow White and the Huntsman). Hawkins is malicious and abusive, riven with an underlying sense of inadequacy and with a barbaric, mercenary cruelty. Clare is Hawkins’s servant and he can act with near-impunity over her; he is unwilling to relinquish his ‘ownership’.
A sequence of events leads to the horrific central act of violence after which Clare is left for dead. Traumatised and damaged, Clare seeks vengeance and, guided by an Aboriginal boy called Billie, relentlessly pursues Hawkins and his small group of soldiers for three days as they cross the treacherous bush on an urgent journey to a nearby town, intent on exacting their destruction.
Clare is often expressionless, diminished and drawn inward by her trauma, her anxieties mostly depicted by intermittent dream / nightmare sequences where her memories weave around one another. Franciosi is excellent, playing Clare as at once traumatised and determined, both inscrutable and empathetic.
I was interested to learn that Jennifer Kent’s early film career was influenced by Lars von Trier, as watching The Nightingale reminded me in places of the Danish director’s Dancer In the Dark. Both films depict a young, utterly powerless woman subjected to unbearable cruelties by an outwardly respectable man, and both films carefully manipulated the viewers extreme discomfort. Kent was inspired to be a director after watching Dancer in the Dark and got her first on-set experience as production assistant on von Trier’s Dogville. However, unlike these two films, The Nightingale may depict misogyny but it doesn’t revel in it.
A template subverted?
In a more standard revenge movie template the archetypes are strongly gendered. The woman plays the innocent victim and is defined by her relationship to the male hero, often a wife or girlfriend. The central atrocity – rape, murder, or both – is represented as an affront or challenge to his masculinity (even the actual victim was a woman). Our hero gains manly strength from his grieving rage and, fuelled by his overriding thirst for retribution, embarks on a vengeful quest of satisfying, thrilling violence. Think of Straw Dogs or Mad Max (or any number of Mel Gibson films). Think of Irreversible that literally turned the genre’s structure upside down, and Mandy, which playfully and knowingly amplifies the mythic elements. Think of westerns (and The Nightingale is a sort-of western) like The Searchers or Unforgiven, both revisionist in their time yet wholly wedded to that template.
The Nightingale most obviously subverts the norm by having the female victim be the avenging protagonist. Clare’s husband Aidan is caring, gentle and good – and the two make a convincing couple – but his actions are weak. Clare has greater agency and determination, even when rendered powerless. And of course it is Clare who seeks revenge, who acts.
Another deviation from the template is that we, the audience, are almost never invited to enjoy the violence. Kent’s excellent direction ensures we are appalled and disturbed by it, whether that violence is drawn out and torturous or swiftly casual, and this is true for Clare’s vengeance as well as the soldiers’ acts. The violence expresses the arbitrary cruelty and casual disregard for human life. It had to be terrible, disturbing and appalling to reinforce the oppression and powerlessness. It’s not lurid, but it’s often gruelling.
Interestingly, although Clare inspires much of the vengeance, the violence is mostly carried out by others on her behalf. This conveniently means we rarely see Clare’s character morally sullied by violent revenge, so in a way she remains ‘good’ and ‘innocent’. This might be explained by the fact that she would unlikely have much agency in this time and place as a young woman with little power or protection. And it’s true that the film feels very authentic to time and place. Nevertheless, this subtly diluted complicity is somewhat surprising for a film that mostly looks squarely and boldly at its subject.
Only once are we, like Clare, invited to take satisfaction in a particularly bloody act of murderous revenge when Clare experiences a moment of euphoric retribution. But that is swiftly followed by reassessment and regret as Clare – and we – reflect on how that act morally taints her. The person she kills is already mortally wounded and weakened. She acts more to satisfy her own desire for violent retribution than for any practical purpose, and then becomes shocked by her own capacity for violence; her blood-spattered face and dress outwardly express that depravity. Neither Clare nor film celebrate violence, but instead ask whether in the face of such oppression the revenge violence is both self-corrupting and yet perhaps horribly necessary.
The film is a period drama set in 1825 in Van Diemen’s Land, what is now modern-day Tasmania, Australia. At that time it was a penal colony of deported convicts, administered by soldiers battle-hardened by the Napoleonic wars. It’s a time of violent conflict between the British colonists and aboriginals known as the ‘Black Wars’ that many historians consider the first attempted genocide due to the deliberate near destruction of the indigenous population.
The attention to historical detail is exceptional. At my preview screening’s Q&A, a historian who specialised in the period said it was very authentic, both the broader historical setting and in the detail. The result is a believable and immersive world that nevertheless feels very immediate.
The production design also helps with this. It’s authentically muddy and candlelit, interiors are uncluttered. The outdoor scenes draw on Tasmania’s wild, rugged beauty but the film is by no means a glossy picturebook. The jungles are enclosing, claustrophobic, indifferent, unknowable, infused with hidden dangers, death and decay, an impression visualised by the squarish Academy aspect ratio. This isn’t the outback of widescreen horizons and vast open landscapes that movies normally associate with Australia.
The Aboriginal experience
An equally important feature of the narrative is the character of Billie, both his experience as an Aboriginal and in the relationship with Clare. Clare is racist, she is a woman of her times and it would be an anachronism if she weren’t. However, slowly her racism softens even if it never entirely vanishes – ‘boy’ becomes ‘Billie’, they depend on and respect each other more.
Similarly, Billie doesn’t initially see Clare as a victim, doesn’t distinguish between Irish convict and British soldier, they’re all oppressors for him. Their distrust gradually evaporates. Initially he is a resentful paid slave, then they bond over their shared enemies of ‘the English’ (after Billie learns Clare is Irish), then sympathy for Clare’s predicament, then eventually a shared sense of purpose.
The moment when they realise this is particularly memorable.
The Nightingale was careful to depict Aboriginal culture, language and myths with accuracy and dignity. We’re first introduced to the Aboriginals as lazy drunkards who are only useful for their animalistic tracking skills, a stereotype as seen through the white soldiers eyes. Billie also has an overriding survival instinct, vanishing in the woods when danger emerges. But as we get to know him better we get to understand a little of his people’s culture.
I was surprised to learn that in Tasmania the Black Wars were so destructive that the culture was almost made extinct – the only remaining descendants are mixed race, most likely the outcome of white colonists raping aboriginal women. Actor Baykali Ganambarr plays Billie with an impressive naturalism; he wanted to portray his people with dignity and integrity. It was vital that the story must be told, and told responsibly. The language spoken in the film is ‘palawa kani’, a composite Aboriginal language reconstructed from research into various extinct Tasmanian languages.
A false equivalence?
The film draws parallels between the Aboriginal experience and that of the Irish convicts. There’s been some criticism suggesting that the film wrongly equates the two experiences. However, although both are subjected to cruelty and oppression the two people’s situations are not equivalent.
We identify with Clare and sympathise with Billie, and Clare’s character is a bridge to help us understand or connect with the Aboriginal experience. Having followed Clare though her atrocities, shocked and stunned, we come to understand that the Aboriginals, at the bottom of society, have it even worse.
There’s another rape scene where the soldiers assault an aboriginal woman (Magnolia Maymuru). This woman has no agency, no identity, pitiable yet remote from the viewer. Some reviewers have criticised this, asking why the film portrays the white protagonist’s rape with such horrific immediacy yet the aboriginal woman’s rape is portrayed more dismissively. It’s a valid question although it seemed to me that, by deliberately reducing that character to almost a disposable cipher, the film reinforces how aboriginal women were treated as objects even more so than the white convicts.
Even at the end, gazing out at the abstract ocean contemplating their immediate future, Clare’s story is of survival while Billie’s is one of extinction. Although their lot in life are not equivalent, the film affords them equal dignity.
Both Billie and Clare’s characters have ciphers in songbirds; Billie the Blackbird, Clare the Nightingale. This imagery feels a little underexplored, relegated to brief conversations and Aboriginal myth. Perhaps they are both caged birds, set free and hunted.
Nevertheless, song and language are used to express and contrast their identities. At the start, Clare the nightingale is made to perform to the braying solders. She sings a contemporaneous Irish ballad called ‘Siúil A Rún’, which prophetically translates to ‘Walk, my love’. Its opening lines “I wish I was on yonder hill / ‘Tis there I’d sit and cry my fill” lament the loss of her lover. Later Billie sings an untranslated Aboriginal song, to express to Clare his own identity and solidarity. They both defiantly define themselves by their language – Irish and Palawa Kani – both resolutely not English – sitting around a campfire cursing their oppressors in their native tongues.
A powerful film
The Nightingale is an exceptional film. Its depiction of colonialism, of vicious cruelty, of power and humiliation, make it a difficult and powerful watch at times. But it doesn’t revel in bleak misery.
Its themes of resilience and identity endure in the way the protagonists act, and also in the way the film itself treats them with dignity. It’s meticulously authentic to its period but it has a timeless resonance, an allegory with themes that are just as relevant today. And it packs a strong emotional punch.
The film is slightly overlong, it feels at times mildly repetitive and the ending is over-extended. But these are minor quibbles. The exceptional, understated acting and powerful script and direction left a lasting impression on me.
The Nightingale premiered at the 2018 Venice Film Festival and was released in UK cinemas on 29th November 2019. I attended a preview screening hosted by Reclaim The Frame. It’s now available to stream on Amazon, iTunes and GooglePlay.