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Jennifer Kent and The Nightingale: A Song of Violence

Each film tells you what it needs if you listen.” — Jennifer Kent

Australian cinema resembles its landscape — pockets of beauty surrounding a vast Outback of baron features and hardened personalities — where, still within their infancy, it is only since the early ’70s that films from down under began to make a mark. Back in the day, for every dozen Turkey Shoots (1982) there was a Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975); sensitivity hardly at the forefront of filmmakers’ minds, drunk on Castlemaine XXXX and X-rated Ozploitation. It was a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Max World.

Welcome to the madness of the 21st century where writer-director Jennifer Kent has made her distinctive mark. Having discarded acting to pursue filmmaking, Kent initially learnt alongside Lars von Trier during the production of Dogville (2003) and released her short film, Monster, in 2005 — the prototype for her feature debut, The Babadook (2014). During those formative years as a student of film, her curiosity in the craft of filmmaking led to exploring the silent era where she was reminded of the German Expressionist movements during the first quarter of the 20th century. The mark of Robert Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) from 1920 is an obvious influence on The Babadook; the suffocating monster at the heart of the film bleeding from every internal and external crack the characters inhabit; painted in vivid, suffocating detail by Radek Ladczuk’s impeccable cinematography.

In the film, Amelia (Essie Davis) struggles to deal with the horrific death of her husband, her grief and trauma having shaped her only child, Samuel, into a fearful little boy who attempts to hide within his fantasies. When he presents a strange, insidious bedtime story to his mother, Mister Babadook, the dark and menacing figure at the heart of the book manifests as Amelia’s mind deteriorates and presents the real monster at the dark heart of the story. Kent fully understands that violence and horror are one and the same and trauma is the by-product. Yet, it isn’t always dressed up as metaphor or left fed or forgotten in a basement.

Despite a return to the central themes of grief and trauma in Kent’s second feature, The Nightingale (2019), the film is an entirely different beast. Where the former uses Caligari and Lon Chaney inspired horror, the latter is a brutal and relentless period piece perfectly framed in the Academy ratio, delivering an unapologetic endurance test. Those more flippant would lump Kent’s masterpiece in with the subsequent spate of rape-revenge films — such as Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016) and Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge (2017) — of which this is more than a successor. This isn’t to take anything away from both Verhoeven and Fargeat’s thrillers — they more than deserve their own credit — but they present little more than the repercussions of the act itself. With The Nightingale, Kent takes on the brave (and conscientious) task of portraying both the shocking acts of violence against women and aboriginal man; navigating Tasmanian history and landscape to create a vitally important document that has remained buried for 200 years.

Set in 1825, during the height of what became known as the ‘Black War’, young Irish convict, Clare, sets out on a vengeance mission through the Tasmanian wilderness hunting down the British officer and his men responsible for her rape and the murder of her family. Along the way she befriends Billy, an Aboriginal tracker, dealing with his own violent and traumatic past, and along the dark and perilous journey, we begin to witness how two people manage to retain what is left of their humanity.

Although her films are steeped in fear, Kent herself is a fearless filmmaker. Coming from an acting background, she connects and brings out the best in her cast, placing (the often loveable) Sam Claflin against type as the merciless officer, Hawkins. This is where Kent’s objective approach elevates the film by sidestepping one-dimensional characters, despite their heinous acts. In Hawkins, she does not set out to create a villain but a complex human being we despise who paints a broader picture of the time; representing the Empire and a privileged class, in turn helping himself to what he wants. He is the violence of rape personified. The central performances of Aisling Franciosi as Clare and Baykali Ganambarr as Billy are mesmerising and manage to carry the weight of such an important narrative — a narrative that Kent does not take lightly with her impeccable research and attention to detail. Similar to Amelia’s trauma in The Babadook, Clare’s mounting PTSD is illustrated by the use of dream sequences — a defining signature in Kent’s work so far — that begin to haunt and remind her of what she has lost.

Tasmania itself is a haunting and haunted land. As with mainland Australia, it is drenched in violence and the ghosts of natives; its cities originating from settlements built on the backs of convicts. During the early 19th century, Aborigines were raised by those who murdered their families; driven to further desperation by the lack of food supplies. Their hostility grew all the more when their women and young girls were abducted, fuelling further conflict. With little to justify their actions, whites continued to suppress what they saw as a native threat — male colonists outnumbered females six to one and 16 to one among the convict population — a gender imbalance that set in motion a disturbing ‘appetite’ for native women that led to such volatile and vile actions.

Aisling Franciosi (Clare) and Baykali Ganambarr (Billy) in The Nightingale.

Although The Nightingale pushes buttons, the violence is not gratuitous. It never takes a left turn via grimy grindhouse and exploitation roots of the early ’70s — nor does it attempt to turn Clare into a kick-ass QT Bride — it’s uncomfortable nature and infamous scenes closer in tone to Sam Peckinpah’s controversial Straw Dogs (1971) and Ted Kotcheff’s Ozzy masterpiece Wake in Fright (1971) from the same year.Kent’s film is both a responsible and responsive piece of work that signals the epidemic of rape around the world. The rape scene during the first act is a harrowing sequence that holds the audience down, helpless and screaming like our protagonist — it isn’t explicit but the death of her husband and blood-curdling cries of her baby go above and beyond — an ordeal of raw emotion. Rape is violence — no striptease, no pound of flesh… just annihilation that delivers a defining moment of character.

Colonialism in itself is a violent mind-set and still prevails today. But, despite such heavy subject matter, it never feels like Kent is preaching to her audience because, deep down, she is presenting a narrative that goes beyond a personal tale. The backdrop of colonialism is unavoidable and yet, as a period piece, The Nightingale manages to distance the viewer just enough, playing on the fringes of a dark fairy tale — a Brothers Grimm Western — with the wilderness and framing of the characters reminiscent of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992). Kent taps into the mythical, not so much with fantastical elements but the universal themes of human nature that she is so attracted to. Through violence and vengeance, the human condition is laid bare and presents some of the most resilient and powerful characters brought to screen. In the company of Clare and Billy, we see the pain of ignorance and trauma on both sides and, as the journey progresses; they become kindred spirits through violence. It’s a subtle and believable bond… a human one that lends hope and ultimately shows that love prevails.

With all of this in mind, there is no doubting that Kent is a true auteur. She deals with subject matter that could so easily be misconstrued and it is clear — especially as a white female — she has placed herself under all the more scrutiny and pressure to deliver an authentic story without appearing to be the ‘white saviour’. The evidence is in her accuracy — supported by Aboriginal consultation that included army protocol of the period and the use of the Tasmanian landscape — a level of respect and craftsmanship more akin to a classic work of literature. Its emotive use of music composed by Jed Kurzel — a traditional blend of Irish and Aboriginal — is a sound of the past, a song of violence that connects the pain of two lost individuals and their own far off islands. As we explore the cruelty against women and minorities, it reminds us of the alpha white male that remains so dominant today; an opposing force wiping out those cultures surviving alongside nature; questioning who truly is the most civilised?

Certainly not the Italian journalist who shouted ‘whore’ when Kent’s name appeared on the end credits during the Venice Film Festival premiere in 2018 — as the only female director in the competition, the despicable behaviour and further words on her position distracted from the film itself. However, it only highlighted the shame, denial and ignorance that Kent was inevitably going to expose. “Being seen through this lens of the most violent film at the festival that a woman made, my god, it was something else,” she reflected with IndieWire in 2019. Kent knew the film would be provocative but, unfortunately, the label had become a distraction, “It’s just the wrong way to frame things. I work bloody hard, just like the men do, and what a great day it will be when we’re just all artists.”

With the U.S. set Alice + Freda Forever — a 19th-century lesbian romance surrounding an infamous teenage murderess — currently in COVID limbo, it is more than evident that Kent is attracted to a specific theme that will continue to deliver her trademark authenticity. Much like her central protagonists, Jennifer Kent refuses to be suffocated or silenced and her work to date speaks volumes. The Nightingale (and its song) doesn’t so much set out to illustrate violence but, instead, depict a nation’s troubled history, because, for all its brutality and ugliness, the violent aspect is simply the truth.

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About Rich Johnson

Rich Johnson's baptism with celluloid was during the Golden Age of VHS. He is a lecturer in film studies and graphic design, hosts @filmandpodcast and is one half of @mondomoviehouse. Writing credits include: Little White Lies, Hotdog, Network, Rebeller Media, Shots and Fangoria along with up-and-coming film commentary and boutique label essays. His Devil’s Advocates book on Bone Tomahawk is due out late 2020.

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