Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale won the Special Jury Prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival, but made headlines because an enraged Italian film critic shouted abuse from the audience. This is not the only place the film has proved controversial, with viewers walking out of screenings at the Sydney Film Festival, complaining about “gratuitous violence”.
The Nightingale is a disturbing tale that stays in one’s mind long after the credits have rolled, so don’t go along expecting light entertaiment. It’s a strong follow-up to The Babadook (2014), Kent’s harrowing debut feature that won acclaim both at home and abroad. After the success of that movie she could have gone on making Babadook sequels, but declined all offers.
Kent is not the only Australian director with a taste for dark and dangerous themes, but unlike so many of her peers her movies are neither graceless nor monodimensional. On the contrary, she has a sense of structure, a feel for cinematography, and a talent for metaphor that adds layers of meaning to a story. She also writes a mean script. What’s not to like?
One wonders if those viewers who walked out of the film complaining about “gratuitous violence” have been to see the new Quentin Tarantino flick. For Tarantino, gratuitous violence is half the fun, but with Kent, the violence is all calibrated towards one end: providing a portrait of what life was like in an awful, isolated British penal colony in 1825.
Aisling Franciosi puts in a tremendous performance as Clare, an Irish convict in a small settlement in Van Diemen’s Land. It’s an outpost of British justice that has become a fiefdom in which the commanding officer is a law unto himself. When that officer is as unscrupulous and sadistic as Lieutenant Hawkins (a role Sam Claflin may never live down), it ushers in the meanest form of tyranny.
Clare has earned her ticket-of-leave three years ago but Hawkins refuses to let her go. She is married to Aidan (Michael Sheasby), another discharged Irish convict, and has a baby daughter, but every day she has to go to work at the barracks. In the evening she is expected to sing for guests, hence her nickname, “the Nightingale”.
There is no way Clare can disobey Hawkins when he leads her to his room and rapes her. It’s brutal, but much, much worse is to follow. Every step in this grim story is deftly negotiated. The rape scenes are handled in a manner that is all menace and no eros. The violence is graphic and relentless, but never “gratuitous”.
The soldiers are weak-willed mediocrities who assuage their insecurities by being barbaric to those in their power, and to each other. It’s a relentlessly masculine environment in which drinking, brawling and groping women are the major pastimes. Hawkins is a sociopath with a high opinion of his own abilities, while his sidekicks, Ruse (Damon Herriman) and Jago (Harry Greenwood), are frightened of him but eager to win his respect. Ruse is a nasty, pandering stooge, yet even he is appalled at Hawkins’s callousness.
Feeling that he has been robbed of a promotion that should rightfully be his, Hawkins sets off with a small party to walk to Launceston to plead his case. The fastest route lies through the forest, which is a dangerous place because of the hostility of the local tribes who have seen their land expropriated and their famlies slaughtered.
Clare follows behind, intent on revenge for the unspeakable evil to which she has been subjected. She enlists a blackfeller named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) as her guide, treating him with the same condescension with which the soldiers treat the convicts. The gradual thawing of the relationship between Clare and Billy will occupy much of the film, as they realise how much they have in common, and how much of a grudge they hold against the English. Ganambarr won ‘best young actor’ in Venice for this debut role.
The trek through the bush is an ordeal, at once more terrible and inconclusive than we might have expected if this were a conventional revenge drama. The further we go, the more we feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.
Kent gives us a vision of a country born from colonial iniquity, in which Clare and Billy are innocents unable to lead innocent lives. Hawkins may be an avatar of evil but he is the corollary of a system that allows such personalities to flourish. At the end of a film in which we have witnessed so many different forms of pain inflicted on so many individuals, we are left with the view that Britain’s implacable justice was also a form of systematic dehumanisation.
What a relief it is not to live in those bad ole days, when a heartless government imprisoned people on islands, and sought to extinguish their every vestige of hope.
Written & directed by Jennifer Kent
Starring Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Sam Claflin, Damon Herriman, Harry Greenwood, Ewen Leslie, Charlie Shotwell, Michael Sheasby
Australia/Canada/USA, rated R18+, 136 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 24 August, 2019