The evils of white supremacy are on stark display in ‘The Nightingale,’ a grim rape-revenge drama set in colonial Tasmania

Aisling Franciosi as Clare in ‘The Nightingale’ — film still

On Friday, Aug. 23, FilmScene opened Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale for a limited run. Art house audiences know Kent from her critically lauded horror film The Babadook (2014), which chronicles the mental deterioration of single mother, Amelia, reeling from her husband’s death and desperately struggling to parent her young son.

The Nightingale also features a woman’s emotional deterioration, albeit a deterioration inflicted by male soldiers who rape and beat Clare, the protagonist, after killing both her husband and infant daughter.

The Nightingale, a rape-revenge narrative, is set during the British colonial rule in Tasmania during the early 1800s. It premiered at the 75th Venice International Film Festival; afterward, a male journalist yelled “whore!” at writer and director Kent. Dozens walked out of a screening in Australia. To say the film has a polarizing effect on audiences is an understatement.

Much of the controversy and press surrounding the theatrical release of Kent’s second feature film concerns the multiple rape sequences (two occurring within the first 30 minutes of the film). In the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, there is an opinion shared by many working actresses that violence against women no longer merits a place on the silver screen. In Natalie Portman’s Variety Power Women event speech in 2018, she advises audiences to “tell a new story,” and asks, “What if we took a year off from violence against women?”

FilmScene has taken the step of inviting representatives from the University of Iowa’s Rape Victim Advocacy Program (RVAP) to be present at select showtimes to support audience member who may struggle with the film’s content.

While in interviews Kent argues that by showing the brutality of life as it was for young women at that time, we can develop a more compassionate way of understanding the world, rape-revenge narratives are often opaque, rather than nuanced. Like I Spit On Your Grave (1978) or The Accused (1988), the whole thrust of the film devotes itself to the following equation: A woman suffers and she retaliates. We do not know Clare as a person, separate from her trauma; her interiority is not available to us as audience members. In this way, The Nightingale is a grim, unforgiving film, full of violence, pain and little catharsis.

Equally chilling and prescient in this film is the parallel narrative of Aboriginal Tasmanians suffering under white supremacist, colonial rule. When Clare sets off to find the British soldiers who killed her family, Billy, an Aboriginal Tasmanian man, helps her navigate the fecund, ferocious forest. Multiple times along their journey Clare and Billy encounter the hanging bodies of other Aborigonal Tasmanians; as one prisoner states bitterly in the film, “You white men kill everything you see.”

The racism of white characters in The Nightingale is ubiquitous: grown men are referred to as “boy” or “it”; people of color are shot at whim; and Clare initially rejects traveling with Billy simply because of his skin color. Along their journey, she starts to realize that the brutality inflicted upon them by the British bonds them together. “You know what it’s like to have a white man take everything you have,” Clare flatly states to Billy mid-way through the film. Yet, for Clare, her whiteness protects her in the wilderness; for Billy, there is no such privilege. While Clare may equate their suffering, it is a false equivalence.

In a recent interview with NPR about her memoir Travel Light, Move Fast (2019), Alexandra Fuller observed, “There’s probably nothing more dramatic than the neurosis of white supremacy, the constant sense that you’ve told a massive lie and that it’s coming up beneath you anytime or around you or above you, you know, in the dark to get you.” In The Nightingale, Kent allows the lie to swallow the characters until even their dreams threaten to consume them with carnage’s physical and psychic aftermath.

The most moving scene in the film comes from Billy who breaks down crying toward the end as he whispers, “This is my country. This is my home.” It is a country, a home Billy loves but increasingly does not recognize as it’s burned, plundered and pillaged by white men who rely on the very people they imprison to navigate the rough and rocky topography to which they are utterly unfamiliar.

Place, homeland and belonging are the central themes of this film, the themes that ultimately make it worth watching on the big screen. Yet, I must agree with Natalie Portman: I’m weary of seeing violence against women on screen. I don’t have to strain too hard to imagine the white supremacist, sexual violence that proliferated 200 years ago: That violence proliferates now, too.

That said, rarely do I get to see on film the humanity of a woman whose revenge is, ultimately, not violence, but self-assertion and autonomy. When Clare finally confronts her primary attacker, Hawkins, she attacks him with her words, not her weapon. “I belong to me and no one else,” she tells him, her voice clear as air. And when Billy does use violence against these men to avenge his family and ancestors, Kent shows Billy and Clare facing not a firing squad, but the dawn at the edge of the sea, that liminal space between land and ocean.

In bell hooks’ essay “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness” she writes, “At times home is nowhere. At times one knows only extreme estrangement and alienation. Then home is no longer just one place. It is locations. Home is that place enables and promotes varied and everchanging perspectives, a place where one discovers new ways of seeing reality, frontiers of difference.”

At the end of The Nightingale, Billy and Clare see the dazzling homeland to which neither can ever belong in the face of colonial oppression. But throughout the film, Kent centers Clare’s narrative, while Billy remains marginal: though they bond, Clare has participated in a system (however unconsciously) that makes the land they stand on both home and alien to Billy. She has trained her gun on him and hurled the epithets just like the soldiers. While Clare’s perspective may have changed among “frontiers of difference,” Kent’s primacy of Clare’s character does little to earnestly plumb the depths and darkness of white supremacy.

Aisling Franciosi (Clare) and Baykali Ganambarr (Billy) in ‘The Nightingale’ — film still

Open space for Billy is an impossibility. When white soldiers cross their path throughout the film he literally disappears: these is nowhere he can be visible in the wilderness as long as white men plunder his land. Thus, Billy’s character is left marginalized in ways that do not allow for hooks’ notion of radical openness: In Kent’s decision to focus on a white Irishwoman, she perpetuates the marginalization of Aboriginal narratives.

The Nightingale is ultimately a film that provokes necessary conversations about race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Unfortunately, Kent’s attempts are often misguided, relying on graphic depictions of racial and sexual violence for narrative substance.