By Peg Aloi
The Nightingale serves as both a powerful exploration of the past (from the perspective of the exploited) and a gripping vision of resilience in the face of unfathomable hate, greed, and cruelty.
The Nightingale, directed by Jennifer Kent. Now screening at the Kendall and Coolidge Corner Theaters.
Jennifer Kent’s debut film The Babadook was lauded as a breath of fresh air for the horror genre: a sort of bedtime story run amok as a troubled young boy and his mother fend off a creature the child seemingly conjured from his nightmares. It was genuinely frightening and its realistic setting made it more so. With The Nightingale, a story set in colonial Tasmania (based on a 2015 historical novel by Kristin Hannah), Kent explores the horrors of antipodean imperialism, and the vicious cruelty visited upon indigenous inhabitants and prisoners imported from the British Isles.
I taught a course on Australian Cinema a number of years ago, and was reminded of the fact that white Australians (and New Zealanders, and Tasmanians) are almost entirely descended from the English, Irish, Welsh, and Scottish prisoners who were exported to penal colonies there, as well as those sent to work as guards and wardens. This film is set during the “Black War” of the early 19th century, when conflict raged between Aboriginals and British colonists, fighting over the spread of English-style agriculture onto traditional sacred hunting grounds. White Australia’s legacy is one of colonial invasion and slaughter.
The nightingale is Clare (the astonishingly good Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish woman who was brought to the Port Arthur penal colony as a child and now, at 21, has had her sentence commuted, but is still an indentured domestic servant to a military commander. The opening scene shows her singing a lullaby in Irish as she walks through the woods carrying a knife firmly in one hand as she balances her baby with the other. That night her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) reminds Clare to ask for her letter of commutation from the lieutenant who paid for their release. Clare, on brief respite from her days of drudgery, is dressed up in a fine green gown and brought out to sing for the entertainment of drunken soldiers. She sings an English love song, nearly drowned out by drunken catcalls from the troops. Her owner, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Clafin) calls her into his room afterwards, on pretext of paying her a pittance for her singing. He is handsome and charming, but his genteel exterior hides a domineering brute. When Clare refuses his advances, he rapes her. Aidan is enraged when he finds out. Hawkins and his men, in a horrifying scene of violence, further destroy the young family.
Hawkins hires an Aboriginal guide to escort him with a couple of mercenaries to his new outpost further north. Left alone and desperate, Clare decides to follow him and exact revenge. At first she ignores those who tell her she’d never survive in the bush alone — it is even more dangerous for women during wartime, and her status as an Irish prisoner makes her even more vulnerable. She reluctantly hires a guide with the two shillings Hawkins paid her, and they set off with Aidan’s horse. Her guide, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), is young but ornery, proud of having refused to accompany Hawkins. Clare is rude to him, upset at having to travel with “a black,” but soon learns she must trust him if she is to travel safely. But she tells him she wants to join her husband — not that she is hell-bent on vengeance.
Their journey, contrasted with that of Lieutenant Hawkins, is secretive and rough. They go through backwoods trails, trying to remain hidden and avoid trouble on the way. They encounter Aboriginal tribesmen who have been hanged or slaughtered, as well as white military men who have been similarly murdered. The atmosphere of danger, death, and cruelty is palpable. Billy shows compassion to Clare as he begins to understand what she has gone through. He shares some of his own story, of having his family and most of his people murdered; he is among the last of his tribe. He tells her of the black bird he identifies with, imitating its call. Birdsong and bird imagery serve as subtle but powerful metaphors. Clare’s artful singing in Irish is a sweet counterpoint to the constant brutality, and her recognition of Billy’s songs as deeply emblematic of his disappearing culture underscores the commonality of their struggle. At one point, an elderly white man shows them hospitality and kindness, and Billy weeps, overwhelmed at all he and his people have lost. Ganambarr’s performance is earthy and real, seemingly bound to his own ancestral demons. Kent’s sure-handed direction allows the entire excellent cast to embody the emotional trauma of people caught up in a ferocious struggle to assert simple human dignity.
Some reviewers have noted the film’s extremely realistic and graphic scenes of violence, much of the mayhem directed at women and Aboriginal people. But to call the violence gratuitous seems misguided: Kent’s unflinching portrayal of colonial aggression and disrespect, meted out in rape and cruel torture, feels necessary to make her point. Despite its disturbing content, The Nightingale is compelling and undeniably beautiful. That is not to say the film isn’t hard to watch at times; viewers may find themselves very uncomfortable, even horrified. But, as we keep hearing people say these days, we must not look away.
There is no question that the Aboriginal people of Australia and Tasmania, as well as the Maori of New Zealand, continue to suffer under racist policies and attitudes. The film’s mix of languages (Irish, native Tasmanian and, to a lesser extent it seems, English) are a reminder of this continent’s colonial past — and its continuing struggles to overcome it. We are being disappointed, across the planet, by a failure to reckon with the ravages of colonialism, and the ideologies it generated. Women throughout the world have been victims of violence at the hands of men since time immemorial; if colonialism represents an assertion of power and entitlement, women become chattel. In this political context, The Nightingale serves as both a powerful exploration of the past (from the perspective of the exploited) and a gripping vision of resilience in the face of unfathomable hate, greed, and cruelty. But, more than that, Kent has crafted a harrowingly moving film about compassion, and how it may be the one impulse that can save us all.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes regularly for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.