And for her sophomore effort, Jennifer Kent went for the jugular.
It was in 2014 that this new Australian filmmaker set the world ablaze with an intense allegory of domestic violence in The Babadook. Kent was quickly crowned the saviour of horror – the breath of fresh air fans of the genre had been wishing for, the beginning of something great. But when the dust settled it was evident that she wasn’t interested in being a conduit restrained by the rules of a genre, after all Kent is a filmmaker that I would compare more to William Friedkin than Wes Craven. It just so happened that The Babadook needed a horror frame, so for her second feature she changed lanes. Kept the guts, but told through a different way.
Set in Tasmania in the early 1800s, The Nightingale is at its core a simple revenge story in the background of colonial turmoil. Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish mother held in the island way past her original seven-year sentence. The local officer, Hawkins (Sam Calflin, in a career defining role), refuses to sign her release papers so he can abuse her both sexually and for his own entertainment, due to her pristine voice she is the nightingale of the title. In a tragic and horrifying incident, Clare’s husband and newborn son are murdered by Hawkins and two of his men, Ruse (Damon Harriman) and Jago (Harry Greenwood). With nothing left to lose, Clare hires the help of a local aboriginal man Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to catch and kill the three English men.
To say that The Nightingale needs trigger warnings is an understatement, but in case you missed out on the controversy, this film includes three brutal scenes of rape, a graphic infanticide, and enough gore to make the hardest viewer squirm. Kent left the tension of psychological horror, but didn’t make it easier to the unsuspecting viewer. If anything she let herself indulge in the themes of her story, without having to hide it all in subtleties. The Nightingale is no frills, straight-forward, blood-in-the-wall cinema. The kind of film you’d imagine a young go-getter filmmaker would make to shock old-school cinephiles. But because it’s Kent, a genuine artist with a plan and defined agenda, nothing comes out as exploitative or pornographic. Instead each scene explodes like a bright spotlight shining at the woes of colonialism, its patriarchal foundation and the wounds that still resonate today.
This is why the protagonists are an Irish woman controlled by a powerful man, and a mob-less Indigenous man torn between his anger and apparent lack of identity. Kent doesn’t bring misery unto these characters, for both Clare and Billy are victims of a larger tragedy. But she gives them the opportunity to purge the wrongs made since 1770. Every step they both take in this long journey is filled with rage and a lot of it seems to come from Kent herself. Rage for what was done to those women. Rage for what was done to those cultures. Rage that it continued long past the end credits into our very own recent history.
It helps that all the actors embody this emotionless lawlessness. Especially for Aisling, who controls her desperation, and later her anger, like she could feel Clare in her bones, and Baykali – hard to imagine a more difficult film to start a career, but here we have it, he nails it like an experienced professional.
The Nightingale holds nothing back. The end may not feel cathartic, especially after recent revenge fantasies that give us the historical payoff that we all wanted, but it was the right one for a film like this – because ultimately Kent isn’t aiming to warm our hearts. Lesser messages have started bigger revolutions
The Nightingale is the kind of film that will divide audiences and stir controversy. But I’ll laud Kent’s masterful approach to violence that never feels dishonest and immoral. You know how hard that is to do? Hardly any other filmmaker, in the history of filmmaking, pulled this kind of brutal sincerity.
I can already hear the voices of dissent, calling out, not the depiction of rape, but the anti-colonial message. The blood and ire may deter some viewers, but it will definitely start a larger conversation that goes beyond its tale. Maybe it can air every year on January 26 until the date is changed.