DIRECTED BY: JENNIFER KENT /2019
Jennifer Kent broke into the mainstream with her debut feature length film, The Babadook. That film was an effectively scary horror film about a widowed mother seeking to deal with her son’s belief that a monster is haunting their house, while dealing with her own sense of loss due to her husband’s violent death. For her follow-up film, Jennifer again deals with another woman dealing with trauma in the film The Nightingale. While not a horror film in terms of genre, The Nightingale takes a look at horrific issues in 1825 Tasmania, in a way that is surprisingly contemporary, and in the midst of it all, becomes a fable for us all. We can either learn from it, or be doomed to suffer a similar outcome.
Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict in Australia’s “Van Dieman’s Land”, in Tasmania. She has been working for a British Officer named Hawkins (Sam Claflin) who has promised to set her free after her 7-year sentence where she has been working in servitude. She has been given the opportunity to marry her love, and she and her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby), raising their young baby, are eager to be set free to live their life together.
Clare has the voice of a songbird, and Hawkins uses his position of power to regularly rape Clare and keep her under his power, so that he can continue to hear that voice. Clare doesn’t share this with her husband. She doesn’t want to jeopardize her chance at getting her letter declaring her free. Her husband, Aidan, however, knows that Hawkins has no desire to truly set his wife free. When he confronts Hawkins, it sets in motion a chain of events that will destroy Clare’s entire world, taking everything she loves away from her.
I won’t divulge all of the details of this horrific event, but Jennifer Kent doesn’t pull any punches in her writing or directing. You will be physically repulsed by what transpires. It will, however, get the audience firmly behind what Clare sets out to do, which is hunt Hawkins and the 2 soldiers he brought with him, and to get her revenge. To hunt down the British soldiers who have set out for a northern town so that Hawkins can try to win a promotion he was passed over for, Clare employs an orphaned Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). Both Aisling Franciosi or Baykali Ganambarr are brilliant in their portrayals of Clare and Billy. They are able to create an organic relationship that fits the racial struggles of the time, but that also serve to demonstrate how such obstacles can be transcended.
It is through this relationship, that Jennifer Kent explorers the darkness of the historic “Black War” where aboriginal populations where nearly wiped out in Australia. Thought the setting is 1825 Tasmania, the racial component feels unfortunately temporary. The level of oppression, violence, and hatred that the white population shows towards Billy and other aboriginal people in the film meets the level of violence, hatred, and oppression Clare has experienced from Hawkins, and it “levels” the playing field for these two characters. The problems of race begins to disintegrate in light of the larger issue of how people in power oppress those who aren’t. In this way, racial oppression, as well as gender-based oppression, including sexual dominance by men over women, are both seen through the filter of absolute power corrupting one absolutely (credit to Lord Acton for the quote). As this corrupting power takes hold of Hawkins, we see that once one gives himself over to this corrupting power, he becomes utterly un-redeemable.
In this way, The Nightingale becomes almost a fable, warning us of our future if we ignore the lessons it offers. Those who have suffered, and endured the raping, pillaging, and ungodly acts thrusted upon them by those with the means to exploit them, will eventually rise up and fight back. Clare is presented as someone who will never fight back, until she is pushed so far that there is nothing left for her but revenge. This too is shown to be problematic as the desire for revenge, no matter how justified, can consume someone and rob them of their humanity, leading them down the road towards being the same monstrous beings that those who are corrupted by power have become. It is a sobering lesson that Jennifer Kent has woven into her tale for us all.
While The Nightingale probably won’t have the immediate impact that The Babadook did, it is a much deeper and sobering tale that will continue to resonate in our modern world, despite its setting decidedly being placed in the older world of Australian history. Kent continues to be a director that demands to be listened to, and has crafted a second tale filled with even more horror and dread that The Babadook, albeit in a different film genre. The Nightingale serves to both warn us, and to give us a glimpse of the possible sunrise of the next day, where we hopefully have a chance to do things differently and change the path we are currently on. If we don’t, the sort of inhuman monsters we will become will unleash a depravity and horror on us all that is of our own making.