When a film is acclaimed or belittled, I always pledge that I will gather my own thoughts before forming an opinion. Context is everything – as it can make or break how a film is viewed – and I find with the influx of opinions on websites like Letterboxd or Twitter, it gets harder to differentiate between one’s own opinion and the opinion of the masses. However, with Jennifer Kent’s sophomore film, The Nightingale (2019), the rumors that surrounded the film during its festival run ring true: even context can’t save the inexcusable horrors that are found within this film.
Clare (Aisling Franciosi) – an Irish convict – sentenced to a British penal colony on Tasmania in the early 1800’s, has been imprisoned by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Clafin) for over three years. Hawkins refuses to release Clare from her bondage, forces her to sing for his soldiers, and brutally rapes her within the first 10 minutes of the film. Once the 30-minute mark has hit, Hawkins and two of his men have assaulted Clare again (in the most horrific scene in the film) and have also murdered her husband and child. Hell-bent on revenge, Clare hires a reluctant guide – Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) – to help her track down Lieutenant Hawkins.
It’s hard not to wonder what Kent’s intention was when making this film. When writing this script, were her intentions to display the horrors that occurred in the time of British penal colonies or to create a mood piece similar to the likes of The Babadook (2014)? The question I found myself pondering over the most though, is that while her intentions may have been good, is it truly Kent’s job as a white woman to tell the stories of how Australia’s aboriginal population was treated in 1825? Clare’s story did not need to include Billy – although Ganambarr is a revelation – as it could have just showcased her trying to get revenge. There is a fine line between what can pass as art and what downright feels like exploitation: The Nightingale feels like the latter. Again, context is everything, and the way the film displays these events is with blatant disregard to the survivors of assault and Aboriginal audiences that could be viewing this film.
At 136 minutes, The Nightingale feels never-ending. Brutality after brutality occurs – fully propelling the viewer into Clare and Billy’s world – but while the film is indeed exploitative and harmful, it isn’t all negative. There is no doubt that Franciosi is a powerhouse, but Ganambarr is the best thing to come out of this film. His performance as Billy is one of the best of the year, and it is hard not to be moved to tears from the way he portrays the character: tenderly and with heart. The film truly shines during the tender moments Clare and Billy share towards the end; with something as simple as their hands grasping each other in the night allowing the characters and the audience alike, a moment to breathe.
The fact that I cannot stop thinking about The Nightingale is not a good thing. My thoughts have been marred by images from the film for days. Images that include people being hung, people being assaulted, and people experiencing pain that is shown in such graphic detail that it does not feel like fiction. I, for one, do not need Jennifer Kent to vividly remind me of what I already know. I do not need a film that poses as a revenge thriller and is truly a gross exploitation film to remind me of the pain that was inflicted on Australia’s Aboriginal people. The things I experience day-to-day and view on the news are already a painful reminder that life has not changed much – modern society is just better at hiding its current atrocities. I do not need three graphic scenes of women being brutalized to tell me that life is unfair; I don’t need to see bodies swinging from tree branches to tell me that; I don’t need three people slaughtered for simply speaking to tell me that; and I certainly do not need Jennifer Kent to tell me that. Just because the film deals with such heavy topics does not mean they need to be painful for your viewers to consume. For example, Coralie Fargeat’s 2017 film Revenge follows the same premise as Kent’s new film but does not show the assumed assault that happens to its main character. There are obvious hints and narrative tools used to display that the character has been assaulted, but unlike The Nightingale, the audiences are not forced to endure the brutality with the character.
It’s been said that The Nightingale is “not for the faint of heart,” but I’d argue that nobody should be berated if they do not want to watch 136 minutes of sexual assault, murder, and violent racism. The faint of heart aren’t the problem here, the problem is the filmmaker’s blatant disregard to the subjects of the matter she is trying to address. Victims of abuse and racism are not the people who need to see this film, and even then, the gratuitous lengths that The Nightingale goes to get its point across are inexcusable for the time we live in. In the end, Jennifer Kent’s newest film feels like a film that should have been made decades ago, with its irresponsible showcasing of assault and racism better fitting the exploitation films of the 1970’s. If you’re in the mood for a revenge film, there are plenty out there that won’t cause your stomach to turn, or your mind to be plagued by what you’ve just witnessed.