The unflinching Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent uses genre to access the innermost depths of feminine rage, grief and the subconscious mind. In her debut, the indie horror hit “The Babadook,” Kent uses the haunted house subgenre to wrestle with the Jungian concept of the shadow in this fable of a mother fighting her inner demons in the form of a terrifying boogeyman.
In her follow-up, “The Nightingale,” Kent has made a film that’s even more disturbing, because it’s all based on real history. Using the rape revenge genre, she directs a piercing, primal scream directly at colonialism and systemic oppression, specifically at the atrocities committed by the British during the “settling,” or invasion, of Australia and Tasmania.
With attention to historical detail and respect to indigenous culture, Kent has created a devastatingly stark and unromantic period piece set during an era of brutal colonization in which the British exploited convict labor and perpetuated a genocide against the aboriginal people of Tasmania (or Van Diemen’s Land, as it was called then). “The Nightingale” takes place in 1825, during a period of conflict referred to as the Black War, though this is not a film that offers too much context beyond the immediate moment. The first words we hear are Gaelic, spoken between a young woman, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), and her husband, Aidan (Michael Sheasby). It’s only when she leaves their hut with their baby, singing in Gaelic while brandishing a knife on the path, that we know they’re not in Ireland anymore.
Clare, who scrapped and stole to survive in Ireland, is indentured to a sadistic British military captain, Hawkins (Sam Claflin). He holds her ticket to freedom, using the power to torment, manipulate and repeatedly rape her. In an act of unbelievably cruel violence, Hawkins snuffs Clare’s hopes for her future in an instant, inexorably altering her destiny.
The person who rises from her blood-soaked hut is no longer a terrified, yielding girl, but a vengeful woman hellbent on a bloodthirsty mission. With her husband’s horse and gun, she takes off into the unforgiving bush after Hawkins, who is headed to town to plead for a promotion. Reluctantly, Clare agrees to take an aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), though she harbors as much racism toward him as the English do to her.
The jungle is filled with dangerous creatures, none more than the roving bands of white men who shoot on sight. While Clare pursues Hawkins’ posse, which presses through the forest as a small microcosm of colonialist murder and exploitation, she is forced to rely upon and empathize with Billy to survive. The two connect through song. With her clear, high voice, Clare is the nightingale, while Billy is the mangana, the blackbird. They bond when they sing their native songs in their native tongues. They have their own cultures and identities, and both are mercilessly oppressed under the boot of British rule. It’s heartbreaking to watch Ganambarr emotionally depict the existential agony of colonization. “This is my country,” he repeats, almost in disbelief.
Kent’s arresting film pulls no punches: It depicts the wanton genocide, murder and abuse that mars the history of this place. But it’s not exploitative, just bluntly presented. It’s earned, because, even though this is a fictional story, this kind of violence (and worse) did happen. But despite all the bleak brutality enacted on screen, Kent can’t help but offer a sliver of freedom for Billy and Clare. When they lift their voices in songs, there’s a glimpse of resistance and hope.