The Nightingale’s sad song still echoes

Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) & Clare (Aisling Franciosi). Photo by Matt Nettheim. Image supplied by Transmission.

Writing about The Nightingale for The Guardian (Australia), Larissa Behrendt, a Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman and Professor of Law at University of Technology Sydney, notes that audiences should be “left in no doubt about the savagery by which Aboriginal people were dispossessed of the land during the ferocious inhumanity and genocide that Australia was founded on.” Despite the strengths of director Jennifer Kent’s depiction of the Black War, the foregrounding of an Irish convict’s experiences to tell this story pushes The Nightingale into complicated territory.

Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut, indie-horror The Babadook (2014), crept into cinemas and built a huge international following. Her follow-up, The Nightingale (2018), announced itself in advance. After a handful of widely publicised walk-outs by cinema patrons in response to the opening act’s brutality, the film began to be framed in the media as “an ordeal that audiences had to ready themselves for”.

The violence and sexual assault inflicted upon protagonist Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict, has been much discussed by the media, reviewers and academics. Indeed, it is rare for a film to be the subject of an entire issue of an academic journal, like The Nightingale was for Studies in Australasian Cinema.

As well as generating robust public conversations about sexual violence on screen, the film raises many further complex questions about how we depict violence in adaptations of Australian colonial history. It calls into question the Tasmanian Gothic and how we represent convict and Aboriginal Tasmanian experiences of colonisation. And it asks us to think about the ethics of filmmaking—who an adaptation of Australian colonial history, like the Nightingale, is for.

Set in 1825 during the Black War on the island known as lutruwita, or by Europeans as Van Diemen’s Land, today­—Tasmania—The Nightingale follows Clare, a convict whose sentence is due to end, as she journeys through the island’s interior to take revenge on an English soldier, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), and his cronies who have inflicted staggering violence upon her and her family. Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal Tasmanian man who is keen to return to his own community in the north, agrees to guide Clare on her journey, and the two form an uneasy partnership. As they follow on Hawkins’ heels the pair are caught up in a litany of acts of murder, violence, rape, land dispossession, and abuses of power, all which reflect the history of Australia’s colonial foundations.

Clare (Aisling Franciosi). Photo by Matt Nettheim. Image supplied by Transmission.

In some ways The Nightingale can be framed through its genre as a revenge-thriller, like Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) or Revenge (2018). For many non-Australian audiences these aspects of the film were most recognisable—adapting the familiar trope of “a female protagonist is brutally assaulted, then seeks bloody retribution”. New York Times reviewer A.O Scott described The Nightingale as “the tale of a wronged woman”. Peter Bradshaw, for The Guardian (UK), framed it as a “gut-churning colonial rape revenge drama”.

But as a revenge film, The Nightingale pushes beyond expectations for the genre, with a brutal opening act. Shot in parts from Clare’s perspective, it forces the audience to inhabit and share in her trauma, rather than watch from a distance, foregrounding the lived experience of a convict woman during this period of Australian history.

The juxtaposition of historical violence and the Tasmanian landscape also positions The Nightingale as a continuation of the “Tasmanian Gothic”, a genre typified by the inclusion of “dark and wet landscapes”. Like the dense forest that Clare and Billy journey through, the Tasmanian Gothic conjures a “paradoxical sense of both beauty and menace”. It is also an approach that reflects a state haunted by its past, as a place where one can be trapped, or lost—in physical or existential ways—and where dark deeds can be hidden and exposed.

The grandfather of the Tasmanian Gothic was Marcus Clarke, who wrote For the Term of His Natural Life (1874), a convict adventure story, later adapted for screen. More recent iterations of the genre include Van Diemen’s Land (2009), The Hunter (2011), and The Kettering Incident (2016). In all of these examples the protagonists and their enemies battle not only with each other but with the hostility of the landscape itself, which has a sense of agency that often brings serious harm.

Uncharacteristic of Tasmanian Gothic, Kent’s forest never quite becomes the antagonist. Clare clearly needs Billy’s help as a guide, but even without him by her side the landscape never truly becomes her foe. Instead the constant threat comes from the soldiers and convicts that the pair cross paths with, who are as dangerous on the open road as they are amongst the “grey, knotty trees”, which Independent reviewer Clarisse Loughrey describes as “a silent observer of mankind’s true capacity for evil”.

Historians Michelle Arrow and James Findlay describe the film’s portrayal of the physical violence of colonialism as “groundbreaking”, and “arguably the most vivid and devastating depiction of the Black War ever placed on screen”. The Nightingale also takes an unflinching approach in its representation of sexual violence on the colonial frontier. Both of the film’s key female characters are raped—Clare, and Lowanna (Magnolia Maymuru), an Aboriginal woman who meets Lieutenant Hawkins’ crew in the forest. Arrow and Findlay highlight the importance of positioning these acts of rape amidst the wider process of colonisation, in that “the capture, rape and murder of Lowanna makes clear that sexual violence was also part of the violence of settler colonialism” for Aboriginal women.

Sexual violence was also widely experienced by convict women, and there is a long precedent, both in works of history and in representations of Australia’s colonial past on screen, of framing convicts, and particularly female convicts, as victims. Historian Ann Curthoys argues that this victim identity becomes problematic if it “blunts and undermines the possibility of recognising that white women were themselves colonisers, part of the invading society which dispossessed and exploited Aboriginal women and men.” Making Clare, a White Irish convict, both victim and focal point of colonial violence, illustrates these issues.

On their journey together Clare and Billy find common ground in their hatred and fear of the English, and their shared sense of cultural and social marginalization, as an Irish woman and a Letteremairrener man respectively. But despite their similarities, there is a clear power imbalance between the two, demonstrated early by Clare’s overt racism and sustained throughout the film through the vastly different ways that they must navigate each encounter on their journey—from who can speak to strangers, to who gets a seat at the table.

One of the problems with the female-convict-as-victim trope is that the female convict’s suffering is equated with, and often overshadows, Aboriginal experiences of suffering. The director, Kent, was apparently aware of this risk. She noted her frustration that audience responses to Clare’s sexual assault appeared to attract more “outrage” than “the attempted genocide of a whole race of people”. Indeed, an Empire review pities Clare for “taking the brunt of” the horrors onscreen, without mention of key Aboriginal characters like Lowanna, or Uncle Charlie (Charlie Jampijinpa Brown).

But despite Kent’s frustration at audience responses, the film does skew towards Clare’s experiences of colonisation. This is especially problematic in considering the character of Lowanna who, like Clare, is brutally separated from her child and family and raped but, unlike Clare, murdered and left with no similar opportunity for revenge, like so many Aboriginal women in history and on screen before her.

Despite her praise for The Nightingale’s attention to frontier violence, Behrendt argues that for “a film so focused on colonial violence against women … the perfunctory and superficial interrogation of how that dynamic plays out for Aboriginal women” is a “serious flaw” and marks a continuation in Australian screen culture of depicting Aboriginal women as “disposable”.

In other ways The Nightingale does disrupt common tropes in screen adaptations of colonial history. James Findlay argues that The Nightingale “eschews an established series of tropes in which convict characters appropriate and displace Aboriginality on screen”. Clare needs Billy’s navigation skills to pursue Hawkins, but unlike films that explore similar partnerships, like Journey Among Women (1977), Clare’s survival away from the British settlement does not depend upon the appropriation of Aboriginal culture or traditions, “something that is neither sought by Clare nor offered by Billy”.

Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). Image supplied by Transmission.

Tasmanian Aboriginal Elder, Jim Everett, the film’s associate producer and Aboriginal consultant, commended Jennifer Kent and producer, Christina Ceyton, as “ethical filmmakers” in regards to their approach to depicting aspects of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture on screen. The Nightingale is the first film to include characters speaking palawa kani, an Indigenous language “reconstructed from written sources” led by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. The publicity material for the film reminds us that “Tasmanian Aboriginal culture is a living culture”. In considering the inclusion of palawa kani and the significance of Billy’s final line, “I’m still here,” as noted by Everett, The Nightingale is an important statement about contemporary Aboriginal culture as well as an adaptation of the island’s history.

Some theorists position The Nightingale as a “post #metoo” film, referencing shifts in international discourse around sexual assault and violence against women. The Nightingale also reflects wider changes in the representation of Aboriginal narratives and characters on screen and increases in Aboriginal-led Australian screen content, informed in part by recent political events like the Uluru Statement (2017) and the call to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian constitution.

Watching The Nightingale at the Venice Film Festival, Jim Everett said he felt the “heavy” weight of the history and lived experience behind the film that he had helped make: “I couldn’t get out of my seat, I just felt sad and angry all in one thing”.

There is no doubt, The Nightingale is a confronting film to watch. But not just because it is a revenge-thriller that sheds light on colonial violence or the sexual exploitation of convict women during this era, or for that matter on the continuing culture of violence against women in this country.

What it also amplifies is the importance of the “difficult and complex, but urgent conversations” that Behrendt praised the film for raising, in terms of the representation of Aboriginal experiences of colonisation on screen and the ways that Australian audiences understand and engage with those issues. How might that conversation be able to develop if a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman was at the centre of the narrative?

Perhaps that is the next story we need to see told.