‘The Nightingale’ Explores Themes Of Violence And Revenge
Jennifer Kent follows ‘The Babadook’ with period Aussie drama
Thursday, August 15, 2019
"The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith" (1978)
"Breaker Morant" (1980)
"Rabbit Proof Fence" (2002)
There’s a lot of expectation riding on the sophomore feature of a director who hit it out of the park with her first film. Jennifer Kent delivered a breathtakingly original feature debut with “The Babadook,” a story about grief and loss wrapped up in the trappings of a horror film. Now she returns with a historical drama that reveals a similar emotional investment but a far less audacious approach.
“The Nightingale” looks to 21-year-old Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) whose lovely singing voice exists in harsh contrast to the brutal world of 1825 Tasmania.
In the press notes for the film Kent explains: “I've always had a fascination with Tasmania. It was considered the most brutal of the Australian colonies, known as ‘hell on earth’ through the western world at the time. Repeat offenders were sent there; the rapists, murderers, hardened criminals. And severe punishments were devised for them to strike fear in the hearts of those back in Britain, to deter them from crime. Women on the other hand who’d often committed minor crimes were sent to Tasmania to even the gender balance. They were outnumbered eight to one. You can imagine what kind of an environment that would set up for women. It was not a good place or time for them. And in terms of the (British colonization), what happened in Tasmania is often considered the worst attempted annihilation by the British of the Aboriginal people and everything they hold dear.”
Kent opens her film with an intimate scene of Clare with her husband and baby. It is a warm, loving moment that will quickly be obliterated. Clare has served her sentence and attempts to free herself of her abusive master Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) but he refuses to grant her the freedom he promised. Hawkins parades Clare around as his “little nightingale” and has her sing British songs for the troops he commands. He makes it clear that she is his property and he can do with her as he pleases. When his ego is bruised by a superior who turns him down for a captaincy he felt assured of, Hawkins grows more dangerous and violent. This leads to a horrific crime that sets Clare on a path for revenge.
Hawkins leaves for the north to pursue his promotion and Clare is forced to follow him on a dangerous journey and to seek the help of a young Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). Initially, Clare treats Billy with distrust and prejudice but as they travel together through Tasmania’s difficult terrain, Clare discovers that Billy has equally strong reasons for hating the British.
On one level, the film’s bleak and gritty revenge tale fits the current #metoo movement. But Kent is after more than just tapping into what’s trending. She is interested in drawing attention to a chapter in history where women suffered horrible abuse and in highlighting the brutal mistreatment of Aborigines. She also wants to explore the nature of violence and revenge. Her film recalls Shakespeare’s lines in which Macbeth says, “we but teach bloody instructions, which, being taught, return to plague the inventor.” The violence in the film escalates with one violent act prompting another, be it soldiers killing more people to cover up their crimes or Clare and Billy craving revenge for atrocities that society and the legal system of the time couldn’t be bothered with. Unlike a lot of Hollywood films that focus solely on the cathartic rush revenge can offer, Kent wants to explore the toll revenge can take on the person seeking it. We want to see justice for Clare and Billy and part of the anger that drives the film is that there is no way for them to find satisfying justice unless they exact it themselves.
Since Kent is very articulate I want to take another quote from her that was in the press notes to shed light on what she wanted to do in her film.
“I wanted to tell a story about violence,” Kent says in the press materials. “In particular, the fallout of violence from a feminine perspective. To do this I’ve reached back into my own country’s history. The colonization of Australia was a time of inherent violence; towards Aboriginal people, towards women, and towards the land itself, which was wrenched from its first inhabitants. Colonization by nature is a brutal act. And the arrogance that drives it lives on in the modern world. For this reason, I consider this a current story despite being set in the past. I don’t have all the answers to the question of violence. But I feel they lie in our humanity, in the empathy we hold for ourselves and others.”
Kent tries to consider if there are alternatives to violence and revenge, and asks questions about the toll violence can take on one’s humanity. But she has no real answers. What does seem clear is that violence begets violence, hate begets hate. There is very little kindness in the film and the characters only enjoy fleeting moments of hope or love.
Because this is Clare’s story, we don’t get as much insight into Billy's story and even less into what makes Hawkins such a monster. In Hawkins' case we only get Clare’s taunt about his mother not loving him. But we do see Hawkins try to take a young boy under his wing and his mentoring is designed to create the boy in his image, and that suggests that hate and violence is taught.
“The Nightingale” burns with a commitment to its characters and Kent reveals fine craftsmanship as a filmmaker. I am also attracted to the relentless and unflinching way she tackles a subject or story. But “The Babadook” set a very high bar in terms of my expectations. Kent displayed an innovative approach to a familiar subject and dazzled me. In “The Nightingale” she doesn’t find that level of innovation and she doesn’t attain that artistic perfection of her first film. It’s still a good film just not a great one. Kent has talent and is fearless in tackling emotionally difficult terrain so I look forward to what she does next.
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