The Nightingale And The Language Of Violence
It’s not possible to be passive about Jennifer Kent’s THE NIGHTINGALE. In fact, the film itself makes it impossible. It knows you’re there, knows you’re watching. It looks you square in the eye and dares you to flinch as it depicts the deepest pain, deepest loss and deepest anger. Maybe this is why so many have found it difficult to get through.
It’s not possible to be passive about Jennifer Kent’s THE NIGHTINGALE. In fact, the film itself makes it impossible. It knows you’re there, knows you’re watching. It looks you square in the eye and dares you to flinch as it depicts the deepest pain, deepest loss and deepest anger. Maybe this is why so many have found it difficult to get through. We’re used to seeing acts of gender, sexual and racial violence depicted on screen with cold objectivity, sadness or the intention to provoke - familiar tricks with a safe but predictable outcome. This film isn’t interested in that though. This film wants it to hurt. And it wants you to remember.
We all know that Australia was built on the abuse of those less fortunate due to gender and race, on the wiping out of a civilisation that had been here so long before us. In the past, white filmmakers have depicted this fact with the safety of hindsight and digestible sorrow, a stately and serious reenactment that uncomfortably acknowledges while alleviating our collective white guilt, as if watching and nodding knowingly were enough. Kent has no interest in such passivity. With THE NIGHTINGALE, she weaves our bloody past into a kind of fable, presented in the language of German Expressionism, a language of tightly-framed close-ups and subconscious nightmares. It’s uncompromising and at times impossibly difficult to watch. She wants you to bear witness to the violence inflicted on Claire (Aisling Franciosi) and Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), but never to enjoy it. We’re used to seeing and enjoying violence, as if it’s a way to distance and remove ourselves from the reality of what we’re seeing. But THE NIGHTINGALE takes none, not in the sight of a baby being flung at a wall, of Tasmania’s First Peoples being slaughtered out of existence, or even in Claire’s long-sought-for acts of revenge. Kent wants them to cut deep, so much so that they’ll leave a scar. Kent’s female perspective also adds a more thunderous level of distress to the sexual violence in the film. These aren’t abstract concepts to her. The violation Claire experiences isn’t just about her body, but a violation of her soul. No male director could understand or capture that with such sickening and truthful horror. It’s honest and it’s unfathomable, and we can barely take it in. This in turn gives her a perspective into Billy’s trauma, a violation of both an individual and an entire culture.
This is a film not just about anger and violence, but a roar against anger and violence, and just as with Warwick Thornton’s masterpiece SWEET COUNTRY, the period setting slaps hard with contemporary relevance. Women like Claire are still fall victim to men who believe that women are their property. Australia’s First Peoples like Billy and Uncle Charlie are still inhumanly abused by racist white Australians. The foundations on which this colonised country was built were foundations of possession. What Kent has crafted is a dark fable on that possession, on the way we whisper frantically to ourselves that we have a right to this land we took and the people in it, and in turn whisper to our sons when they’re young, just as it is whispered to Eddie (Charlie Shotwell), “This is all yours, boy. It was won in blood. Protect it with blood if you have to, no matter whose it is.”
Of the countless harrowing moments in THE NIGHTINGALE though, one in particular still haunts me - the sequence where Claire and Billy are taken in for the night by an elderly couple, and Billy is expected to eat his food on the floor in a corner. Out of kindness, the older man allows Billy to sit with them at the table, and when Billy takes his seat, he begins to cry. We’ve seen this before, this problematic ‘white saviour’ moment where the mistreated soul cries in gratitude at an act of human charity. What happens next though causes THE NIGHTINGALE, all the anger and pain and loss and inhumanity woven within it, to crack wide open. Amid the tears, Billy speaks.
“This is my country. This is my home.”
He doesn’t cry in gratitude. He cries because he is being treated as a guest in his own land, a land stolen away from him, and is now expected to feel grateful for the scraps of human decency he’s given in return. He cries because he is seeing how swiftly and catastrophically his people and his culture are disappearing before his very eyes. He cries as the last of his family and the last of his race. And he cries because he doesn’t know what to do.
We begin with Claire losing her family in the most inhuman way, and we end with that loss writ large on a national scale, an act of genocide borne from nothing more than the male lust for possession. Claire and Billy are bodies to be owned, to be used as seen fit, and disposed of when no longer needed. They are the country itself, raped and beaten, stolen and violated, erased and forgotten. As they stand facing the dawn in the final moments of the film, they stare into a future that they know does not belong to them, that has no place for them, that has been taken from them, has forgotten them, and that they must fight to survive in with every drop of blood in their bodies.
THE NIGHTINGALE is more than a film. It’s a roar of pain, centuries of pain. And it demands that we finally listen.
Daniel Lammin is a film writer for SWITCH, as well as a Melbourne-theatre director and producer.
To learn more about al thirty-four of the feature films in competition for the 2019 AACTA Awards presented by Foxtel, download the Judges Handbook here.