Like a single rose emerging from a sea of barbed wire, the eventual friendship at the center of The Nightingale, Jennifer Kent’s first movie since the instant horror classic The Babadook, is far more improbable than the brutality surrounding it. Set in a penal colony off the coast of Australia in the early 19th century, the period thriller takes an unflinching look at the violence enacted and enjoyed in the name of colonialism, sexism, and classism, among other injustices. For some audiences, Kent’s gaze is too resolute. Dozens of attendees at the Sydney Film Festival walked out during screenings in June, with one female moviegoer reportedly overheard saying, “I’m not watching this, she’s already been raped twice.” With The Nightingale being released in the United States at the same time that audiences are flocking to the latest Quentin Tarantino film, which turns another set of real-life massacres into an excuse for a buddy comedy, it seems worth asking what kinds of violence we’re willing to accept on our screens and why.
There’s no question that The Nightingale often is hard to stomach. Its protagonist, an Irish convict named Clare (Aisling Franciosi in an astounding lead performance), is raped twice—and the second time, she suffers multiple other unimaginable traumas on the same night.
(She’s not the only woman we see sexually assaulted, either.) In a state of irrepressible rage the morning after, Clare sets out to kill her principal abuser, Hawkins (Sam Claflin), a British officer obsessed with her beauty and singing voice who’d rather shatter what he cannot have than let it exist outside of his control. By the time Clare wakes up, Hawkins and his men have left for a multiday journey through the woods toward a nearby town, and so Clare recruits an indigenous tracker named Billy (first-time actor Baykali Ganambarr) to help chase them down.
The Nightingale thus appears, at first glance, to be a standard rape-revenge movie, though it becomes most interesting when it subverts the conventions of that male-director–dominated genre by exploring what it would actually feel like, emotionally and even bodily, to confront someone who did such monstrous things to you. However, as Clare and Billy begin to understand each other, The Nightingale eventually reveals itself to be, as Kent has described it, a colonial revenge film. Unlike many of the other natives, Billy speaks English—a consequence of his kidnapping as a child by the white men who killed his father and brothers (a biography that serves as an instance of, as well as a synecdoche for, the British colonization of Australia). Having seen so much bloodshed firsthand, he can’t help seething at Clare, whom he justifiably sees as an invader of his land (even if she was taken there against her will). That she desperately needs his help, but also spends the first hours of their acquaintanceship pointing her rifle at him, does little to assuage his distrust.
On Game of Thrones, the twin prospects of rape and murder, often bloody and random, became so common that anticipating them became a popular drinking game. But the woods in The Nightingale are a dystopian maze of mayhem and terror that’s all the more believable because it seems plucked out of history, and not too long ago at that. Filled with convicts both rogue and organized, the wilderness is especially dangerous for Clare and Billy, who pass by burning settlements and the hanged natives ostensibly responsible for them. Their fates are tied together, but it takes a compellingly long while—at least the first half of the movie—for Clare to stop calling her adult companion “boy,” and it’s not until the end of the film that she, a songstress herself, allows him to sing the songs of his people. (“It sounds bloody awful!” she initially screams about his cultural heritage, which he has toiled to gain back.)
There’s bound to be some wariness around the fact that, at least in its outlines, The Nightingale resembles Green Book or The Help—feel-good movies about cross-racial friendships hatched out of mutual empathy. Watching Billy’s infallible tracking, I did wonder whether his character shared some DNA with the centuries-old trope of the noble savage, though maybe not: Kent says she collaborated with Australian aboriginal elders to ensure an “honest and necessary depiction of their history.” But there’s little that Billy has to learn from Clare: He knows that the British are different from the Irish and that the former practice sexual violence, at least in Australia, with impunity. The only thing that surprises him is Clare’s commitment to what strikes him as a suicide mission.
As with The Babadook, Kent maintains an unrelenting sense of dread throughout and uses it to sensitively explore the aftereffects of trauma. That exploration extends, somewhat, into the minds of Hawkins and his two underlings (Damon Herriman and Harry Greenwood) and how they deal with the cruelties they visited upon Clare. And Kent’s script is extraordinarily observant about how Hawkins evades guilt and maintains an air of respectability while grooming younger and less powerful boys and men to behave the same way he does. But as successful as the character is as an embodiment of patriarchal and racist violence, he does veer close to a cartoonish portrait of villainy as the film uncovers ever-new levels of his depravity.
Clare and Billy’s friendship is suitably spiky and full of mutual distrust. But as successful as they are at modeling solidarity among oppressed groups, I can’t say that Billy feels like a complete character on his own terms, despite the screenplay’s persistent interest in his backstory. (Ganambarr’s inexperience as an actor likely comes into play there, though as a dancer, he does deliver a great physical performance.) I’m also not entirely convinced that commercial cinema is best equipped to revisit such Colonial traumas, even if it has an entire genre (i.e., the Western) dedicated to glorifying them. The movies tend to tell individual, exceptional stories, not commonplace ones. (See also 12 Years a Slave, about a freed black man who was enslaved, and Stanley Kubrick’s oft-quoted critique that “the Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.”)
Genocides might best be remembered by art forms that aren’t inherently predicated on emotional manipulation, and therefore aren’t under suspicion of untruthfulness or bias. But on American screens, at least, there is an almost shocking dearth of honest stories about European colonialism, one of the greatest forces to reshape the globe in the last half-millennium, and Kent’s humanist revisions of the rape-revenge and Western genres represents a visionary attempt to rectify this. It may not always be easy to sit through, but we’re nonetheless lucky to witness it.