In this post-Handmaid’s Tale world, there’s been some real debate about whether portrayals of extreme violence against women contribute to the trivialization of pain and suffering. Is there a better way to communicate brutal misogyny than to depict it in full on-screen? At one point does it become gratuitous, sadistic entertainment?
The Nightingale, Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook, is harrowingly violent. Set in 1825 Australia, it’s the kind of movie that immediately dispels any romantic fantasies about traveling back in time. It’s truly uncomfortable to watch — I had to check an impulse to shield my eyes on multiple occasions — but that’s also the point. This movie does not let us check out. There is no respite, no way to inoculate oneself against the sometimes overwhelming feeling of disgust and horror. .
The Nightingale takes place during Australia’s “Black War,” a time during which British colonizers brutalized the aboriginal population in an effort to conquer their land. Aisling Franciosi plays Clare, a young Irish convict sent to Tasmania to serve out a sentence as an indentured servant. When we meet her, she’s happily married, with a newborn baby, and intent on procuring her freedom from her abusive master, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), now that her term is up. Her request triggers his worst impulses, and he lashes out in an act of unspeakable violence, leaving Clare to take the law into her own hands. Enlisting the help of an aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), she travels across the harsh landscape in search of justice, only to find that the resolution she craves may not come from revenge.
In the months since the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where Kent — the only female director in competition — took home the Special Jury Prize, The Nightingale has become a flashpoint for controversy. I lost count at how many rapes are shown during the film’s two-hour run time. One scene, in which Clare is gang-raped in front of her husband and child, is nearly impossible to sit through. And indeed, there have been reports of audience members walking out of screenings.
Kent constructs an environment of all-encompassing terror that so many women know all too well: the fear that any man could be the one who turns on them. But she also refrains from reducing Clare’s trauma to cartoonish superhero origin story; the film instead delves into the zero-sum nature of tragedy, and how those who are victims of oppression can also be the ones to dish it out.
What’s more, there are real glimmers of hope weaved into the film’s darkness. This isn’t meant to destroy, but rather to offer a way forward, a path towards healing a nation that’s been grappling with its bloody past for so long.
Refinery29 talked to Kent ahead of The Nightingale’s August 2 release.
Refinery29: You’ve faced a lot of criticism about the amount of violence in this film. We’ve seen stories about men seeking revenge on those who killed their families countless times. Why do you think the reaction is different when a woman is at the center of that narrative?
Jennifer Kent: “Well, firstly, I don't see it as a revenge film — not in the traditional sense of how those films are mapped out, which is largely as stories offering catharsis for wrongs done. The film doesn't really fit in that canon. It doesn't provide a catharsis. Some people have referred to it as a rape revenge film. I tend to be a little uncomfortable with it. Because I myself wouldn't go see a rape revenge film. I certainly wouldn't make one.”
That’s an interesting distinction.
“I think that we're anesthetized to violence and we tend to see it as a stress release. I've turned down films because of their use of violence in a context of entertainment. It just doesn't sit well with me. And I do think that my gender does probably come into play in terms of people shocked at how a woman can write a story about this. But it's a story set in a war zone, and in war time it's women and children and the more vulnerable of society that suffer. Why wouldn't that be my concern?”
Watching this made me reflect on how casually sexual assault is portrayed in film. It’s almost surprising to me that people have been walking out of screenings, because rape is violent. It shouldn’t be a surprise to see it depicted that way. But so often, it’s sugar-coated for our comfort.
“I think a lot of people still see it as a sex act, as something disgusting, taboo, but something not violent. But it's meant as an act of violence to silence another human being. If I wasn't showing that, what, what use would it be to include it in the film? I see it as a responsibility to portray it honestly. The film is about a period in [Australian] history that was civil war. Do we choose hate and violence as a response to violence? Or can we, do we have it in ourselves, to look at other options: love, compassion, kindness? Can we still remain human in these dehumanizing times?”
Your first film, The Babadook, fit very much in the horror genre. The Nightingale isn’t as clear-cut, although it does feature horrible acts. Would you describe as a horror movie?
“No, because I think that belittles the experience of all the ancestors on both sides, who went through these things. It's a true recounting of a historical horror. But it doesn't fit a horror film [mold].
Clare goes through the film in genuine terror that any man she encounters might try to physically harm her. It’s not horror as we traditionally conceive of it, but I think it does get at something that women still fear in real-life.
“In some sense. But I think the core of the film is about love, and about opening to that love that grows between the lead characters in a platonic way. You lift up and look underneath the damage and there's still love and kindness and empathy at play. it was a horrific world in that time no doubt, but I think we're dealing with the same horrors in 2019 across the world. The mentality of violence that created colonialism is still alive and well in your country and mine.”
What went into casting Sam Claflin as Lieutenant Hawkins, Clare’s abuser? This is a very different kind of role for him.
“The development was a long process and it involved a clinical psychologist being on board from the treatment stage right through to final cut. There's this cliche of the so-called rapist as an ugly, completely immediately definable person. And it's just so often not the case — a lot of them are charming and charismatic. I wanted him to be good looking. I wanted him to have the warmth of someone like Sam.
“Initially, I said, no, no way. He's very locked into a certain kind of role. And I have to say in hindsight that's my shortcoming to see his capability, because he really proved me wrong.”
The film exists at the intersection of so many issues, including sexual violence, class, but also race. There are so many hierarchies at play here — even between Clare and Billy. How did you balance the story so that all those parts moved together?
“Claire's racism sprung out of my research. The collective thought [in Britain] was that aboriginal people were less than. I didn't want Claire to suddenly have a 2019 sensibility in a film set in 1825. She needed to exist in that environment.
“I researched the film over a period of five years altogether, and did extensive collaboration with many aboriginal elders, and in particular Uncle Jim Everett, who was with us from the get-go. We had an army historian and an Irish cultural expert, language experts for both Aboriginal and Irish languages. And once you put together all this information, you get a picture that's very complex and not at all about one issue. Shit runs down hill, as they say.”
The movie doesn’t exactly end well, but it does end on a hopeful note. Was that important to you?
“It is hopeful. In [Australia], reconciliation has only just begun between aboriginal people and white people. I always saw the film as a film set in war time, but it's traveling towards the light and that was really important for me to head towards the light always.”
What do you hope audiences come out of this movie talking about?
“We've had experiences where women, sometimes very young women, have come to see this film. And they've spoken to either Aisling [Franciosi] or myself about their experiences of sexual violence and how seeing the film actually helped them, and gave them some reassurance that they weren't alone. We talk a lot about the importance of saying things when people are ready. So [is] having stories that reflect back to them their reality and their experience, even if it's painful.”