TW: Sexual violence, including assault and rape, violence
When Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent created The Babadook (2014), a truly horrifying allegory for mental health struggles, it seemed as if she became a household name overnight. Fans of The Babadook – Kent’s debut film – were left with one searing question: what will she do next? Four years later, Kent delivered the answer with the stunningly bleak and violent period thriller, The Nightingale (2018). Although it did not make the same cultural impact as The Babadook, The Nightingale should be revered as a damning display of colonial-era bigotry in the frame of a grimy psychological thriller.
The Nightingale follows Claire (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict working for British soldiers during England’s efforts to colonize Australia in the 1820s. The soldiers Claire is indebted to are morally corrupt and perverted, traits which are exemplified in their leader, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). One night, Claire loses everything to Hawkins and his men. She becomes hellbent on revenge and chases down the soldiers who wronged her with help from an Aboriginal Australian tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr).
Kent’s sophomore feature film starts off incredibly tense, setting the tone for the entire two-hour and 17-minute runtime. In one of the first scenes, Claire sings a traditional British song to the soldiers she works for. When the camera faces the soldiers, it reveals looks of malicious intrigue, some more obvious than others. Claire’s objectification by the soldiers is an underlying theme throughout the movie. Shortly after her performance, Hawkins called her into his office for a “meeting.” It is there that he forces her to have sex with him, during which her stare is locked onto the fire in his office.
Fire as a motif returns repeatedly in this movie, representing destruction and chaos at times like the scene in Hawkins’ office. However, it also represents cleansing and healing, as seen in the moments of unity shared between Claire and her guide Billy over campfires.
Claire’s relationship with Billy, the indigenous tracker, creates another interesting angle for this film. Claire initially starts the journey on horseback with a gun pointed at Billy at all times. However, she eventually overcomes her own racism and finds the intersectionality between their experiences. They have both suffered greatly at the hands of British international exploitation and throughout the movie, Claire realizes just how much Billy has lost.
When Claire returns home to her husband, Aiden, it only gets worse for her. Hawkins never gives her her “ticket,” or the papers she needs to be free of debt to the soldiers, which Aiden takes issue with. This leads to a confrontation that ends in a horrible tragedy. When Claire tries to report what has happened to her, she is met with scoffs and indifference, as the soldiers who committed the crime have already left so Hawkins can pursue a higher post in northern Tasmania.
The Nightingale stands out from the vast majority of often misogynistic rape-revenge films. Well-known films from this subgenre like I Spit On Your Grave (1978) often fetishize violence against women, filming it from the perspective of the assaulter, and drag out or over-sexualize the violence. The Nightingale never ventures into that territory; all scenes of sexual violence against Claire are fully clothed, and the audience sees many shots of what Claire is looking at while these things are happening to her. Even when the soldiers kidnap and repeatedly assault an Aboriginal woman named Lowana, we never forget that she is a human being and not a slab of victimized meat.
Revenge thrillers centered around women who have been assaulted also tend to only use the assault as a starting gun for the movie, seldom delving further into how this affects victims or how they rise out of their trauma. Movies like Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) have been lauded as feminist masterpieces, yet they have not been able to hold up as well over time. From Bill’s “Do you find me sadistic?” line over Uma Thurman’s bloody body, to Harvey Weinstein's role as producer, there are many aspects of the film that make some modern viewers see it as a distorted story of violence against women. I enjoy the Kill Bill series, but acknowledging its shortcomings is an important part of watching it.
The Nightingale does not fall into this cinematic rut, as Claire’s journey toward her revenge is paralleled by her attempts to come to terms with what has happened to her. Her suffering never becomes torture porn made for the male gaze; it is always a story about a woman wronged and the ups and downs of her finding closure.
In addition to treating Claire and other women victims with respect, The Nightingale also allows room for character development. Instead of having Claire kill every single soldier mercilessly, Kent directs her as regretful of what she has done after brutalizing the soldier who inflicted the worst pain she suffered. The scene in which she does that is notably violent, and Billy is aghast by this act of wrath just as much as she is. She never kills another person for the rest of the movie, and has repeated nightmares of what has happened to her and what it made her do. This character development does not usually happen in revenge thrillers; usually, the protagonist chases down all who wronged them without a second thought or any discernible character traits other than anger. In The Nightingale, Claire appears genuinely distraught by her actions.
This scene serves the additional purpose of allowing Billy to come more into frame, as Claire and Billy become more honest with one another. As they continue through the Tasmanian wilderness, we watch as Claire’s mental stability declines and Billy becomes more than just a paid guide. Billy performs rituals to help Claire relieve the various pains that come with being a mother to a baby, and he gradually opens up about his personal experiences with the British soldiers.
The development of truth in their relationship is exemplified in the scenes where Claire is alone on screen. As her mental health deteriorates, she becomes incredibly paranoid without Billy. While in the woods one night, she hallucinates the soldier she brutalized, Hawkins, and other terrifying visions. She is eventually guided out by a black mangala bird – Billy’s bird – and when they reunite, she sheds a tear of joy.
Although this ending may seem disappointing to some, I believe it shows how they both grew through the course of the film. Claire realized that the revenge she wanted would not bring her the catharsis she thought it would, while Billy finally was able to face what was done to him and what he lost. This type of character development is something most thrillers lack even though it is the most human reaction to startling acts of violence.
That is ultimately what separates and uplifts The Nightingale. It provides a deeply disturbing and brutal tale that is seemingly hopeless, yet it has a story rooted in the reality of a traumatizing life. Instead of letting the protagonists of this film forget why they are doing what they are doing in favor of gratuitous violence, Kent depicts two deeply complex, human characters that band together to process what they went through. Kent took a genre of hacky stereotypes and harmful tropes and turned it on its head.
The Nightingale is streaming on Hulu.