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Why The Nightingale is such a harrowing watch

directed by Jennifer Kent

Director Jennifer Kent's follow-up to The Babadook is a western-tinged revenge flick set in 1820s Tasmania.

During The Nightingale’s Sydney premiere in June, one woman in a traumatised audience was heard to shout: “She’s already been raped – we don’t need to see it again.” That plea for mercy came just 20 minutes into the film, during the second of several depictions of horrifying sexual violence.

Australian director Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to her sensational debut, The Babadook, arrives on our screens burdened with the stigma of walkouts and harsh criticism, suggestions that this western-tinged descent into 1820s Tasmania might be too gruelling to witness.

Kent has a mission: to accurately portray at least a tiny part of the rampage and bloodlust entailed in land seizure, to point out that “civilisation”, in this context, is merely murder. The explicit political purpose is to ram a searing poker into conversations about imperial legacies and the dispensability of indigenous life that are not held often enough.

Aisling Franciosi plays Clare, a convict in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), held in servitude by a predatory English lieutenant called Hawkins (Sam Claflin). After being defiled by him, she sets out on a mission of revenge and is guided through the bush by Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr).

A distinct hierarchy emerges: as an Irishwoman, Clare is racialised to the same degree as Billy (though he still has land to lose), but, being white, she fears him in turn. Both are spat upon and abused by Hawkins in equal measure, and in this arrogant, cruel figure we have all the arrogance and cruelty of the British Empire – he is both viscerally representative and utterly cartoonish.

The western as a genre is inherently tied to manifest destiny, to the roving antihero, to the wild frontier. But far from the wide-open deserts of The Tracker or Rabbit-Proof Fence, Kent’s film is a cramped, chaotic chase – its tall frame accentuating portraits over landscapes. There is no majesty in this world, just mud and blood.

There are, however, limits to the genre, limits that Kent cannot transcend. And The Nightingale is arduous, not just in its unblinking persistence, but in its length, too, at close to two and a half hours. It is the kind of film that defies easy judgment. Rather, it issues a challenge: do you dare look away?



Video: Transmission Films

This article was first published in the October 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.