The Nightingale: A Film not for the Faint-Hearted
By Akshita Satish
The success of her debut film, ‘The Babadook’, made Australia based writer-director, Jennifer Kent, a name to look out for. Kent, among other upcoming female filmmakers, is a breath of fresh air in an industry that lacks sufficient representation of the female perspective. Often films that convey stories that involve and affect women are made through male gaze, which can be great films but may lack the accurate representation of an experience.
The film Babadook is the story of a mother - Amelia, dealing with the loss of her husband and balancing the responsibilities of single parenthood. The already unstable world of the mother-son duo is turned upside down when the storybook monster Babadook comes to life and terrorises them. The Babadook is referred to as the best horror film of the year 2014, some may even call it a psychological thriller. The film could be deemed scary even without the dooming Babadook, as it dwells into authentic human emotions such as anxiety and fear as a response to real-life scenarios. It deals with the themes of motherhood, loss, grief and empathy which manage to find its way in Kent's second feature - The Nightingale.
The Nightingale is not a horror movie, but it brings to life a different form of terror. It expresses female rage and trauma. The film is set in 1825 Van Diemen’s Land now known as Tasmania during the black war. It follows Clare’s journey, (played by Aisling Franciosi) an Irish convict, who is subject to the misuse of her master - Lieutenant Hawkins (played by Sam Claflin). Clare, overdue for her emancipation ticket, is time and again denied her freedom by Hawkins. Hawkins' abuse of power results in physical and sexual violence. The extreme actions of the officer cause Clare to lose everything dear to her - her love and her child. This puts her on a path of revenge. She hires an aboriginal tracker named Billy (played by Baykali Ganambarr) to guide her through the thick wilderness to get to Hawkins and his troop who are on the way to Launceston, in order to kill him.
Like Clare, Billy is a victim to the awful events that unfolded due to Colonisation. Billy, who has great respect for his cultural origin, past and heritage, has his own set of traumas from losing his family and being displaced by the Colonisers. Billy and Clare distrust each other, but as time goes on they warm up to each other and find that they are more similar than they were led to believe. They both discover that they are just humans trying to make it in a world where the odds are against them.
The film ends with Billy going from just guiding Clare through the forest to taking matters into his own hands, as he kills the officers with spears made by him in reminisce to his ancestry. Billy and Clare’s journey ends on the beach during the sunrise where billy sings in Palawa Kani as he bleeds and Clare sings in Gaelic the tongues of their land. This is a moment that provides us with the much-needed catharsis.
The film constructs a story borrowed from history. It is not just a rape revenge though, it is driven by vengeance. It is grounded in the reality of British Colonisation of Australia. It deals with the systemic extermination of Indigenous tribes, the violation of human rights faced by prisoners sent to the colony and their tendencies of racism. Kent does not shy away from portraying the harsh reality of Australia's past and brings to light the horrific elements of slavery, mass murders of indigenous people and the brutal rape culture of that time.
The story of Clare and Billy is delivered with all its brutal truths - warts and all. The use of academy ratio (1.375:1), choice of shots (often tight close-up reaction shots) and masterful lighting, confines the viewer in with Clare and Billy, it creates a sense of being trapped in a helpless world and forces the viewer on the journey with the Clare and Billy. The use of symbolism both visual (such as including insert shots of barren land with few dead trees when Clare is experiencing the abusive wrath of Hawkin and the final shot of sunrise right after the death of Hawkins) and metaphorical (Billy clamming to be the Mangana, Clare refusing to be Hawkin's nightingale) in the movie drives the story forward eliciting subtle and subliminal emotional response without exploiting the audience. The film is accompanied by great sound design that captivates us and conveys just enough, finding meaning and power in quieter moments and simple songs sung by the characters.
To provide a meaningful story that is also loyal to the time it is set in Kent did extensive research, sitting down with various experts.
“I think they had to be informed, not just by their experience, but by their time. I couldn't put a 2018 or 2019 sensibility on an 1825 character. So I needed to do the research to conceptualise who these people would've been. I mean, how would anyone human feel in those situations? I just mapped out the characters from there.” Kent said in an interview with a film school. In the same interview she said, “I needed to understand sexual trauma in a way that someone like Dr. Elaine Barrett (a psychologist) could offer insight. But not just from the perspective of the victim either--it was also from the perspective of the perpetrator. We looked into the psychology of both sides. And we also looked at the shared dynamic that happens with repeated abuse. Our aim was to sensitively and compassionately shine a light on the terrible damage that happens on both sides through these acts of violence. And they are acts of violence. People have a hard time divorcing the sex from the violence when it is actually an act of violence. It's designed to annihilate a person. I really wanted to show that very honestly.”
The distributors of the film went to great lengths to caution the viewer against trigger factors, multiple theatres that aired the movie had experts on site that were equipped to talk to the viewers who may need it, and many people walked out of theatres. The film is not a traditional horror film or even just a revenge plot; it is much more nuanced and layered than that.
The Nightingale is a courageous movie that depicts horrific acts and its impacts in all rawness. It is a film that depicts tough events without being exploitative. The film is hard to watch and not meant for the faint-hearted as it may evoke emotions that people aren't ready to face but it is a film that is worthwhile and gives food for thought by raising questions like 'What is our history?' 'How is it taught in our current society?' 'How have those events impacted our world?' 'How do we break out of such cycles?' and so on.