In preparation for the film actor Aisling Franciosi worked with a psychologist and spoke to rape crisis councillors and social workers at domestic violence centres. (Supplied: Transmission Films)
Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent first made a name for herself with the lean, lo-fi horror film The Babadook.
Five years on from the international success of her debut feature (and its surprising transformation into a meme), Kent has returned with an ambitious and harrowing period thriller, intent on exposing the horror of Tasmania’s — and by extension, the nation’s — early colonial history.
Winner of the Special Jury Prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival, as well as The Age Critics Award for best Australian feature at the recent Melbourne International Film Festival, The Nightingale is the story of Clare (Italian-Irish actress Aisling Franciosi, of television’s The Fall), a stoic young Irish convict determined to avenge the murder of her family.
Like The Babadook, The Nightingale is at its core about a woman’s trauma — but where the widowed Amelia attempted to repress the pain of loss, Clare embraces it, finding in it a potent — and reckless — driving force.
Baykali Ganambarr, an Elcho Island-born dancer, makes his acting debut in the role of Letteremairrener tracker Billy. (Supplied: Transmission Films)
Franciosi gracefully bears the burden of the role. Her round face is often luminous with awful experience in cinematographer Radek Ladczuk’s many long, uncomfortable close-ups — their intensity heightened by Kent’s decision to shoot in the boxy Academy ratio.
Clare’s mission sees her set out across the wilderness of Van Diemen’s Land — as the island was known to Europeans in 1825, when the film is set — with the reluctant assistance of an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Elcho Island-born dancer Baykali Ganambarr in his first on-screen performance, for which he was awarded the Best Young Actor award at Venice).
Director Jennifer Kent developed the film in close consultation with Tasmanian elder and associate producer Uncle Jim Everett and language consultant Aunty Theresa Sainty. (Supplied: Transmission Films)
Despite the dislike and distrust each initially feels for the other, a deep and abiding closeness is born of the stories they trade, and the hardships they come to share.
While other filmmakers have mined this narrative set-up for comedic odd-couple banter (see: the Coen brothers’ True Grit), such humorous moments are thin on the ground in The Nightingale, which is about as dark a gothic fable as they come.
Clare’s marks are three: her master, the power-hungry Lieutenant Hawkins (The Hunger Games’ Sam Claflin, playing against his pretty boy type), and his two cronies, hot-headed Ruse (Damon Herriman, who appears fleetingly as Charles Manson in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and wide-eyed, weak-willed Jago (Harry Greenwood, Hacksaw Ridge).
Kent says she wanted the film to tell a story of violence from a female perspective. (Supplied: Transmission Films)
Hawkins has refused to set her free since she completed her sentence some months back — too enamoured is he with her sweet singing voice, and with the masochistic thrill he clearly gets from owning human property (especially such a fine-looking piece).
It is the Lieutenant’s need to control Clare — to bend her mind and body to his will, by whatever cruelly performative means he deems necessary — that results in her family being killed as she looks on, no more able to intervene than those in the audience.
Coming early in the film, this scene is highly confronting. Its depiction of sexual violence, in particular, has been a source of controversy, with a number of patrons walking out of screenings at this year’s Sydney Film Festival.
Certainly, The Nightingale warrants a trigger warning. That said, the graphic content doesn’t feel gratuitous — at least, not in the sense of the term that applies to Gaspar Noé, for instance, or Quentin Tarantino, as directors who revel in depicting various bodily violations.
Kent says The Nightingale is a war film, and takes inspiration from Russian director Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See. (Supplied: Transmission Films)
Rather than seeking to elicit gasps or cheers from audience members, Kent seems motivated by a sense of obligation: insofar as the violence she subjects her protagonists to is grounded in the historical reality of life in the colony, the images of their suffering deserve to be grappled with.
Where the film teeters on the ‘problematic’ is in its eagerness to draw parallels between Clare’s plight and Billy’s — both of whom have been displaced, their families murdered.
(An unsubtle piece of symbolism affirms the idea that the two of them are of a kind: Clare’s ‘nightingale’ nickname finds a counterpart in Billy, whose totem is “mangana” — the blackbird.)
Franciosi secured the role of Clare after sending Kent an audition tape of herself singing Irish folk song Siúil Á Run. (Supplied: Transmission Films)
This notion is seductive but fraught.
“You know what it’s like to have a white fella take everything you have,” Billy tells Clare after they establish their mutual hatred of the English. Well, yes and no.
As a white Australian, I’m not quite sure how to feel about the genocide of the Aboriginal Tasmanians being framed as a black character’s motivation for bonding with a white one, even if she’s “Irish convict scum”.
Ganambarr is magnetic as the canny tracker, but the fact that Kent contrives to have Billy and Clare develop an alliance that verges on romance has a touch of white-guilt-fuelled fantasy to it.
However, if The Nightingale falls short of its lofty ideals, that doesn’t stymie its significance as an affecting cinematic reckoning with the unremitting ugliness of Australia’s colonial history.
The Nightingale is in cinemas from August 29.