Jennifer Kent’s ‘The Nightingale’ Carefully Treads Through a Maze of Trauma

Editor’s note: this piece contains references to racial violence and sexual assault

Tasmania in 1825 was a British penal colony. England shipped its prisoners to its wilderness, a wilderness that they stole from Tasmania’s native population. England abused prisoners and Aboriginals alike, treating them like livestock. In Jennifer Kent’s second feature film, The Nightingale, she navigates the colonial atrocities performed by the British and creates a film that wishes to directly address the cruelty of past while also encouraging empathy for the victims of such violence.

Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish woman who has been on the island for seven years. She was first sent to prison, then purchased by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Hawkins has taken a special liking to Clare, routinely assaulting her after he’s had something to drink. Despite her requests for freedom after her marriage and the birth of her daughter, Hawkins clings to her like a starved leech, sucking out whatever life Clare has left. This culminates in a horrific act of violence that leaves Clare alone and full of rage. She hires Aboriginal tracker, Billy (newcomer Baykali Ganambarr), to guide her through the wilderness to catch up the soldiers and enact her revenge. 

First and foremost, this is a film about the layers of colonialism found during this time period. Both Clare and Billy are considered minorities, with Clare as an Irish woman and Billy as an Aboriginal man. While both are treated like dirt, Clare does see herself above Billy due to the color of her skin; here the demented hierarchy of power becomes clear. The hatred the British carry towards the native population has trickled down to their prisoners, who use that hatred to wield any type of power they can over those they consider “lesser” than themselves. However, as Clare spends time with Billy and learns about him, she slowly learns that there is no need for this pain Olympics, a comparison of their suffering. They come to an eventual understanding of one another in a way that does not make Clare a white savior or Billy a magical negro stereotype. Instead, they become equals. Billy is allowed to feel pain and confront Clare with that pain, as well as tell her about the privilege she carries despite being Irish. They come to understand that they have both suffered at the hands of the British, they have taken everything away from both of them. Kent eschews the idea of solely focusing on the suffering of her female protagonist and opts to navigate several layers of pain, illustrating the complexity of colonial rule and how it perpetuates demented systems of power. 

The growth of Clare and Billy’s alliance showcases truly phenomenal performances from Franciosi and Ganambarr. While they work well together as traumatized pair, each carry such emotional weight that you can’t help but empathize with them. Kent uses close-ups during key moments to focus on the heart-wrenching facial expressions each actor utilizes to convey their anger, exhaustion, and fear. Franciosi is both vicious and scared, using her anger to cover the rest of her emotions. She snarls at anyone who questions her, moving from the meek woman of the film’s beginning to a fiery creature who is fueled by revenge. Ganambarr, despite this being his first film, again carries such intense emotional weight in conveying the overwhelming feeling of grief when your entire family and culture is murdered in front of you. He offers moments of joy as he glimpses a blackbird, sings in his language of palawa kani, and performs Aboriginal ceremonies. Despite his rage, he still clings to his traditions and works to preserve them however he can, despite the constant oppression by the British. 

In contrast, Kent also chooses to show the group of British soldiers navigating through the wilderness. At first, this seems to be a way to have the audience sympathize with these men and somehow create empathy for their own suffering, not unlike techniques seen in films such as I Spit On Your Grave. However, their scenes instead function as a look into the ingrained cruelty within each soldier, how they process their own rage, and how that is then passed down to younger generations, illustrated with their young helper, Eddy. Kent gives them each a personality and background as to not just create villains, but pawns in the machine of colonial powers. They themselves are stuck in this heinous system, but each choose to comply through cruelty. While there is little to no empathy for them, Kent still wishes for the audience to understand the complexities of these modes of power and how, in the end, no one really wins; instead, they are trapped in a vicious cycle of death and trauma. 

The Nightingale also navigates the cruelty of sexual assault in a way that toes the line of exploitation, but ultimately leans into a more thoughtful gaze that does not sensationalize the violence. These scenes are shot in close-up and do not revel in the naked body. Instead, Kent focuses on the faces of the women, showcasing their pain and eventual dissociation from each violating act. Importantly, the issue of rape is addressed across race, not merely focusing on Clare’s own pain. The suffering of Aboriginal women is also displayed, not just privileging the white female experience. These scenes are undoubtedly difficult to watch, but they are important moments that display the cruelty of colonialism, the power dynamics that have been in play for centuries, and the continued abuse of female bodies. The atrocities of rape cannot merely be swept under the rug, but should be carefully presented as both a reminder of the world’s troubled past and a reminder that, unfortunately, people are still treated this way.

The Nightingale is undoubtedly a violent and traumatic film. But, in its violence and depictions of trauma, Kent creates a tale about understanding one another, how racism is passed down, the harrowing effects of PTSD, and the deep craters left in the wake of acts of colonial violence. It forces the audience to confront the past in attempts to address the atrocities committed at the hands of the British in Australia and Tasmania. Through this confrontation, Kent creates an empathetic connections between the audience and Clare and Billy; they experience their pain and understand the multi-layered suffering each must weather under British rule. These moments of violence are brutal and at times difficult to watch, there is no doubting that. But, this is where Kent works best at forging audience-character connection; she lets her characters feel pain and even experience slivers of joy. The brutality of The Nightingale functions not as spectacle, but as moments of emotional education. While her second feature couldn’t be more different from The Babadook, Kent proves her dedication to portraying pain through a careful lens that never shies away from the truth. 

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