The horrors of colonialism are sung without mercy in The Nightingale

CW: discussions of violence, sexual abuse, racism and child death. Contains spoilers throughout.

The latest release by Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent, The Nightingale is like a vengeful ghost that won’t let you sleep.

When I attended Bird’s Eye View preview screening earlier this month – part of their #ReclaimTheFrame program – I was unaware of the film’s controversial debut at Sydney Film Festival, where it caused several people to walk out and throw insults at its maker.

If we can’t cope with watching this violence on screen, how can we cope with the idea of descending from the ones who perpetrated it?

The Nightingale is set in Tasmania in the 1820s, at the peak of the conflict between British colonizers and Aboriginal Australians. But there’s a third group alongside them: European convicts who have been deported to Australia for their crimes. This is where we meet Clare Carroll (Aisling Franciosi, Game of Thrones, The Fall), an Irish convict living in a forest shed with her husband (Michael Sheasby, Hacksaw Ridge) and a newborn baby. Clare is eager to receive the papers that would finally grant her family official pardon, but the papers are being held by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin, The Hunger Games, Me Before You), a British officer who views Clare as his property and sex slave.

From the first shot of Clare walking through the woods with the infant on one arm and a homemade blade in hand, we understand we are going to be witnessing something violent and unsettling.

Kent plays with what the audience might expect from a historical drama. Right off the bat, she shows Hawkins rape Claire after she sings for him and the other soldiers at dinner. Is this yet another period piece indulging in gratuitous torture-porn in the name of ‘realism’?

But Kent is in for something much darker. When Clare’s husband Aidan learns of the abuse, he confronts Hawkins in front of his superiors, triggering a physical fight. This costs Hawkins the recommendation he was hoping for to achieve a promotion and in a fit of rage he retaliates against Clare’s family.

When Hawkins and his fellow soldiers Ruse (Damon Herriman, Justified, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and Jago (Harry Greenwood, Gallipoli, Hacksaw Ridge) enter Clare’s home at night, I was filled with a sense of dread. The husband and the baby are not going to make it, I thought. But how that happens is even more horrific that one could expect. Clare is gang-raped while Aidan is shot and the baby is shoved fatally against the wall in an attempt to stop her crying.

The soldiers knock Clare unconscious and leave for the city of Launceston, where Hawkins hopes he’ll be able to put himself forward directly for the promotion. Clare wakes up the following morning in a state of adrenaline-fueled anger. She attempts to report the violence to the Military Police, but she’s dismissed due to her state as a convict. She then entrusts the body of her child to a friend and leaves on her husband’s horse to chase Hawkins through the woods.

When Clare hires an Aboriginal man, “Billy” Mangala (Baykali Ganambarr), as her guide through the intricate jungle, Kent masterfully shifts our perception of the characters.Clare acts just as racist towards Billy as the British soldiers – she orders him around, calls him “boy” and fears he’s a cannibal. She suddenly steps out of simply being shown as a victim and becomes someone harder to like.

Their journey through the forest forces Clare to witness the violence against Aboriginal people. Thanks to Billy’s ‘take-no-bullshit’ attitude and almost too-modern sarcasm, the two of the end up bonding, partly from their common hatred for the British, with Clare enforcing that she’s Irish, not English.

Meanwhile, Hawkins’ trip gets delayed because Ruse is keen on kidnapping an Aboriginal woman, Lowanna (Magnolia Maymuru), as a sex slave. At this point, the rape scene count is up to five. They are tracked by Lowanna’s companions, who attack the garrison. Hawkins shoots the woman at pointblank and flees. Jago is hurt and gets separated from the group. Claire and Billy find him and Clare kills him, in a gruesome stabbing that leaves her covered in blood.

When Clare and Billy catch up to Hawkins at Launceston, Hawkins plays merciful, telling Clare to leave town before he’s forced to kill her. She then follows him into the tavern where he’s having an interview with his superiors and describes his war crimes to everyone present. This is where the narrative starts to falter by backing away from the promised revenge, with Clare announcing, “I belong to myself” – a sentence far too naive and on the nose for a film that has so masterfully played with metaphors about ownership. Though Hawkins does look ashamed and we should hope this will have repercussions on his career, we’ve also already witnessed Claire’s accusations being dismissed at the very start. Why would this be any different?

In the end it’s Billy who dresses for battle, making us question whether he deserves this more than Claire or if this is once again a case of a female character being deprived of her agency. Billy kills Hawkins and Ruse, with Clare catching up just in time to see their murders. Billy is fatally injured in the process, and in a cruel final sequence, we observe Clare and a dying Billy on the beach as the sun rises. Sunrise, new beginnings, purification, the symbolism tells us; but the characters’ faces do not, despair taking over Clare’s voice as she sings to Billy.

By restraining the amount of violence inflicted on white men, whose deaths are by far less disturbing than the ordeals suffered by Clare and Billy, we are left with a sense of dissatisfaction
The subtextual themes of ownership and belonging are intrinsic to all strands of the narrative, from Clare’s bodily autonomy and her Irish heritage to her hierarchic relationship to Billy; from the arrogance of the British colonizers to their failure in controlling a wild jungle that only locals can navigate.

This is also a ghost story. If we can’t cope with watching this violence on screen, how can we cope with the idea of descending from the ones who perpetrated it? Just like Clare is kept awake by the ghosts of the people she saw dying, so we are haunted by our discomfort at sitting still in a cinema chair.

This violence is well maneuvered into forcing us to confront this long-forgotten past and the complex, multi-faceted ramifications of it. By restraining the amount of violence inflicted on white men, whose deaths are by far less disturbing than the ordeals suffered by Clare and Billy, we are left with a sense of dissatisfaction. We can’t confine this horror to a well-structured narrative where Clare gets her revenge, nor one where she dies and we mourn the injustice.

It’s also worth mentioning that Kent is a white Australian woman. She stressed several times how the film was made in collaboration with the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. This might explain the refreshing lack of the white ally trope, yet there are points where her inevitably external point of view does affect the message, such as the vicious treatment of Lowanna – who enters and leaves the story with no agency whatsoever – and the framing of Billy as the eventual killer of Hawkins by having him step into the white soldiers’ idea of a ‘scary black man’.

The film is not for everyone and it’s most definitely not beyond faults, but it’s also a film that probably wouldn’t have been made without Kent’s determination to unravel the can of worms that is Australia’s colonialist past and to do so with a will for authenticity.

If there were no happy endings in history, what right do we have to demand one in fiction?

The Nightingale is now showing at cinemas across the UK.

Images courtesy of Bird’s Eye View.

Image description:
1. A close-up of Clare’s lips and left eye as a blurry crow flies in front of her face.
2. Clare has her back turned but stares at the camera, her face covered in blood. In the background Billy leans against a tree.
3. A close-up of Billy’s profile looking up at the sky at night. His body is painted in white according to Aboriginal tradition.