“The Nightingale”: Rape and Extermination in the British Colonies

“The Nightingale”: Rape and Extermination in the British Colonies August 25, 2019

How about starting off a film review with a book recommendation?  In TV critic Emily Nussbaum’s excellent essay collection I Like to Watch, she asserts that the increasing representation of women’s stories on television will necessarily include more portrayals of sexual trauma.  It’s unavoidable, given its distressingly high prevalence.

So, in that vein, The Nightingale is a story about a woman.

Set in 1825 Tasmania, its protagonist Clare is an Irish-born convict who has served out her sentence for theft, but is being held in a state of slavery by her British master, Lieutenant Hawkins.  (At that time, like the island continent Australia to its north, Tasmania was a British prison colony.)  A brisk opening introduces us to Clare, her husband Aidan, and their infant child, living together in a remote shack.

Baykali Ganambarr and Aisling Franciosi, in “The Nightingale”

An ominous tone is quickly established, as Clare strides a path, singing a lullaby to her baby she holds with one hand, while holding an open knife to defend herself with the other.  That night, Hawkins commands her to sing to the homesick troops garrisoned in their hamlet, afterwards raping her dispassionately in his chamber.

The following evening, Aidan – unaware of the rape – pleads with Hawkins for his family’s liberation.  Their dispute turns violent, as Hawkins and two of his soldiers murder Aidan and the infant, afterwards raping Clare.

A bereft Clare recruits Billy, a local Aboriginal man, to track Hawkins, who has since departed for a nearby town to make a case for promotion.  Hawkins is convinced he’s entitled to advancement:  after all, he’s “civilized the land [and] gotten rid of the blacks.”

In Clare’s traumatized mind, it’s not clear if she’s seeking revenge, or merely escaping a place that holds nothing but horrific memories for her.  And writer/director Jennifer Kent skillfully puts us in Clare’s headspace, with point-of-view shots and scenes that situate us in her nightmares and dreams.

As Billy and Clare track Hawkins, The Nightingale creates multiple parallels between their experiences, in ways that mostly feel unforced.  For both of them, English is not their first language (and the film subtitles Clare’s Scottish Gaelic and Billy’s Aboriginal tongue).  Both bear avian nicknames for their singing talent, Clare the nightingale and Billy the blackbird.  And most importantly, both have been orphaned and treated as disposable property in the British colonization scheme.

Predictably, their relationship evolves as they stalk their prey.  At first, Clare calls Billy “boy,” while Billy has only contempt for this “white devil.”  As they learn each other’s story, a mutual respect and shared mission form between them.

Using a skeleton crew on location in Tasmania, Kent delivers an immersive sense of place.  With a mix of mid- and long-range shots, we are burdened with the immenseness of the forest they traverse, both in its totality and its massive individual trees.  The dangers faced by Billy and Clare feel real: the quicksand, the rushing river, the creepy critters shrieking in the night.

Kent also portrays the violence onscreen with integrity.  Far too often, violence against women is sickly eroticized, which emphatically does not happen here.  Despite this, The Nightingale drew controversy at its premiere in Venice, with dozens of walkouts over the brutality of the rape scenes.  Well, the protesters got it wrong:  I believe Kent when she says she’s honestly depicting the common experience of women convicts who were transported to Australia and its neighboring islands.

Interestingly, there hasn’t been a similar level of outrage over the portrayals of equally brutal violence against Tasmania’s indigenous people.  Again, to Kent’s credit, she consulted at least one Aboriginal elder, to ensure authenticity and sensitivity in conveying their culture and suffering.

The three actors at the center of The Nightingale are uniformly excellent.  This is Aisling Franciosi’s first lead film role; prior to this, she’d been most active on Australian TV, besides a small role in Game of Thrones.  As Clare, she fully communicates the horror of her experiences, along with a toughness that plausibly vacillates when pressed to commit to violence.

As Billy, this is Baykali Ganambarr’s first acting role, period.  But wow, his character’s emotional journey – his rage, despair, and ultimate co-identification with Clare – is believably expressed, and deservedly earned him the Best Young Actor award at the Venice Film Festival.

Sam Claflin as Lieutenant Hawkins, in “The Nightingale”

And Sam Claflin (best known for lending complexity to Finnick in the Hunger Games movies) pulls off a tough job in humanizing a despicable character.  In portraying Lieutenant Hawkins, he conveys a barely suppressed awareness of his incompetency as a leader of soldiers.  He epitomizes, too, the corporate reality of “sh*t rolls downhill”:  the contempt his superior officer shows him is transmuted into sadism towards the prisoners and soldiers he abuses.

The Nightingale is writer/director Jennifer Kent’s second feature.  Though her first, The Babadook, was a horror film, both have plenty in common.  Where the Babadook monster was a metaphor for shared traumatic grief between mother and child, The Nightingale also concerns itself with two people coping with feelings of impotence after unimaginable traumatic loss.

Overall, The Nightingale shows advancement in Kent’s storytelling skillset, even if some of the feminist empowerment talk is too on-the-nose.  Likewise, Billy and another key Aboriginal character veer dangerously close to reduction into the same cinematic types we see with indigenous peoples in American Westerns.  (For more on this topic, I’ll offer another book recommendation:  The Inconvenient Indian, by Thomas King.)

Despite these flaws, this is a work worth viewing, for its many strengths and for the light it shines on the inevitable effects of colonization.  Its brutality will keep me from watching it a second time, but living in a time when Britain’s Prime Minister nostalgically quotes Rudyard Kipling, while Canada and the United States still treat indigenous people as inferiors, we need films like this.


(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )

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