Its funny when people say they wished they lived in another time in history rather than the one they do. Okay I’ll admit it the 2020’s haven’t been that fun so far but the idea of living through WW2 or during the age of Vikings or in Victorian England just doesn’t appeal to me at all.
The popularity of this preoccupation with living in the past comes from films and TV shows who seem especially good at glazing over all the bad parts of our history. From Pride and Prejudice to Poldark to Bridgerton to Downton Abbey these unrealistic portrayals make whatever age they are set in look shiny and enticing, eradicating all the disease, depression, death and disgusting smells that would most definitely have been hanging around.
The same cannot be said of Jennifer Kent’s vision of 1825 and the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land, or present-day Tasmania in her latest film The Nightingale. Determined to offer up a realistic and raw vision of Australia’s history the writer and director, most famous for The Babadook, takes the audience on a tour of torture and torment hoping to educate them on the horror’s of the past and making sure that no one would ever want to spend even one second living the lives they witness.
The stark and shocking story centres around Irish convict Clare Carroll (Aisling Franciosi from Game of Thrones) who works as a servant for the British Colonial forces. Although she has a loving husband and a very young child Clare lives in fear as she is bound to the whims of Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin from Peaky Blinders) a vile and vicious solider who sees her as his property.
Taking her for himself frequently by force, beating and belittling her, Hawkins is unstoppable in his unwanted advances especially as he hangs a letter of recommendation over Clare’s head that would free her family from subjugation.
Aware the Lieutenant has no intention of honouring his word Clare’s husband Aiden (Home and Away’s Michael Sheasby) confronts him, attacking him in front of his men. Embarrassed and enraged and with the prospect of escape at a placement in a faraway town, Hawkins takes his most trusted men to Clare’s cabin to reap a hideous revenge on her.
Left for dead with her life destroyed Clare vows revenge on the men who took everything from her and heads out into the bush with a reluctant Aboriginal tracker Billy (The Furnace star Baykali Ganambarr) to hunt the soldiers down. Little do the unlikely pairing know the path they have set themselves upon and the pain it will inflict on all involved.
Grim and gruelling from start to end The Nightingale is a horrifying drama not for the fainthearted. Although predominantly set in the lush and beautiful wild landscape of Australia the film paints the darkest picture it possible can of the terrible lives the people lived at that time. There is very little kindness, hope or humanity shown by any of the characters we meet and racism and sexism are rife with both the women and the natives seen as barely above animals by the men.
Once you strip away the period detail and art house sensibilities at its heart The Nightingale is a rape revenge horror hitting most of the same notes and beats that any other examples from the controversial genre would do. Interestingly the film has been taken much more seriously than most rape revenge horror’s would have although it features far more moments of sexual abuse and violence with much more shocking language than many of those films ever have. In fact at the Sydney Film Festival around 30 film-goers walked out of a screening proving the power of cinema to shock and offend even today.
Ultimately Jennifer Kent’s film is about more than the rape of one woman and also charts the rape of an entire country, its people and their culture as perpetrated by the British invaders. Kent has defended her movie by citing its historical accuracy to the attitudes and actions of people at the time and the film was produced in collaboration with Tasmanian Aboriginal elders who asserted that this is an honest and necessary depiction of their history and a story that needs to be told.
This drive to expose cultural concerns is both positive and negative as in my personal opinion the final act betrays Clare and her story hammering home the films wider opinions and objectives while denying any cathartic retribution for the lead character. In doing this it also subsequently serves a male narrative over the top of the wronged woman’s voice, something a trashier yet truer rape revenge horror would never do.
That said Kent’s film is powerful and important holding a magnifying glass over some of the most unforgivable and disgusting acts visited on humanity by other humans. Unflinching and brutal, as hard as it is to watch The Nightingale we must never forget these moments in history or we will be doomed to repeat them.