By now, you have probably heard a thing or two about writer-director Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to her beloved film The Babadook. Many of The Nightingale’s scenes make that 2014 movie, widely regarded as one of the scariest of its time, look like kids’ stuff. Destined for “all-time most shocking” lists, it’s the kind of movie whose reputation precedes it. This is true for the majority of its potential audience—ahead of its commercial release (August 2), many reports on its early festival screenings have focused on jeers and walkouts.
At the same time, it is acclaimed—at the time of publication it holds an 82 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It is, then, some of the best things a movie can be: divisive, visceral, and demanding. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the world saying, “Meh,” upon leaving the theater. Set in Tasmania in 1825, during the colonization of Australia (a time often referred to as the “Black War”), The Nightingale opens on indentured servant Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a convict from Ireland who’s used and abused by her British master Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) in a number of ways. He makes her sing for his harassing troops (she sings a song about a nightingale and is figuratively one herself), and he rapes her. Repeatedly. And that isn’t the half of it.
The sadism and disregard Clare faces will be excruciating for any compassionate viewer to sit through. (Kent, in fact, suggests not sitting through her movie if the subject matter is too disturbing.) A desperate Clare seeks revenge with the aid of an Aboriginal guide named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), who has also experienced devastation at the hands of white men, who have murdered and exploited his people. The pairing is initially contentious—Clare is a racist and Billy is sick of working for white people despite having few other choices for making money. And then, they find an unexpected sort of harmony.
Kent is protective of her film. She has firm ideas of what it is and isn’t. Despite it having the rough outline of a rape-revenge film (raped woman seeks vengeance), she insists it does not belong categorized in a subgenre whose films are often morally ambiguous at best when they aren’t out and out exploitation vehicles that eroticize rape. “The film is ultimately about empathy, love, compassion, kindness in the face of very difficult times,” she told Jezebel earlier this week by phone. She bristled when I suggested that she had centered a white woman in a film about the colonization of indigenous people (“Not really, I mean, it doesn’t at all”). This is somewhat debatable—though the film is told from Clare’s point of view and it’s called The Nightingale, Billy’s own trauma is crucial to the plot and especially its resolution—but Kent wasn’t up for a debate: She knows her film, she knows what she did, and that’s that. She says she feels strongly about this movie, which she researched for about five years and employed multiple on-set experts, including Jim Everett, the film’s Aboriginal consultant, and language consultant Theresa Sainty. It is about as obsessively built as Robert Eggers’s The Witch (or, for that matter, Anna Biller’s The Love Witch), a true cinematic labor of love that is brazenly heinous and beautiful, in turn.
We talked about her uncompromising vision, her commitment to historical accuracy, rape on screen, and the varied responses she’s received. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
JEZEBEL: From where I sit, it seems like this movie is controversial even before most people have had the chance to see it. I wonder if that’s your perception as well.
JENNIFER KENT: It’s a little mystifying. It’s a war film, and it’s based on historical truths. Things that have happened in my country. War is not pretty, and if it’s shaking the tree and getting people to look at the fallout of war from this particular perspective, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s not that I ever intended to provoke or be controversial; I just intended to tell a story from a very well-researched, authentic, and true perspective. Violence is shocking, horrifying, and heartbreaking. The responses that I’ve personally received have been acknowledging that. It’s been very moving for me to see.
Rape is but one of the atrocities you portray on screen, and yet it seems to be what most people cite or have issues with when discussing this movie. Has that been your experience?
No, it hasn’t been my experience. I don’t use social media. I don’t go to that place because it’s a cesspool of random comments from strangers, often people who haven’t seen the film. It’s not good for your mental health to go there as an artist. All I can say is these things happened. They happened then, they’re happening now, and we haven’t gotten very far turning a blind eye to people’s suffering. The film is ultimately about empathy, love, compassion, kindness in the face of very difficult times. I think that’s what we need to enlist. I think it’s good to face things. Everyone’s different but that’s what makes the world go ’round.
You said in a Vulture interview that you don’t consider this a rape-revenge movie and that you don’t like those movies, generally. I wonder if this movie at all represents a reaction to the way rape has been portrayed on screen, where it has been frequently eroticized, for example.
To call this film a rape-revenge film is just so beyond reductive that I couldn’t fathom how anyone could see it in that way. It’s just so not that. I’m not interested in trashing everyone else’s films by saying, “My film’s this…” because it’s case by case. It’s one element of the story. In this part of our history, women were systematically, repeatedly violated. It was a way of controlling them. But it speaks to a larger violence. It wasn’t just that. Colonialism by nature is a very brutal violent construct. To go into a foreign land and to assume the original inhabitants are worthless and eradicate them so that you can build over top of them, literally, is an inherently violent act. That’s what I wanted to speak to. Not because I’m interested in past brutality, but the mind that created colonialism is the same mind that’s driving the modern world. Certainly, many aspects of it. It speaks to a loss of many things, but largely a loss of the feminine and a loss of respect for nature. They’re big themes and they go beyond rape-revenge. If it was a rape-revenge film it’d be a pretty disappointing one for people who are drawn to those kind of films.
I thought that was part of the point—to subvert. I guess the bigger conceptual question is how much did you care about genre and subverting it?
I didn’t care about genre at all, and I think rape-revenge films also subvert reality. How often does rape play out in that way? Never. Close to never. It’s a fantasy. I wasn’t interested in fantasies; I was interested in the reality of violent minds, whether that’s through revenge or lust for power or genuine retaliation. It’s not that I wanted to be didactic or preachy and tell an audience: “Violence is bad.” It’s just I wanted to talk about it. How do we feel about these things happening in front of our very eyes when they’re from an honest place and recreating what actually happened? How do we feel about that? Can we still turn away? Can we still move onto the next thing and forget about it? I hope not.
Your filming of the rape scenes did strike me as responsible, even if it’s a function of your innate sensibility, for discussing trauma through Clare’s nightmares or the way that you frame the rapes from the point of view of she who is being raped. More responsible, that is, than other depictions I’ve seen in film and on TV.
I was hard-pressed to find a rape film that wasn’t in some way potentially titillating for someone, some sick individual. I wanted to give no one the opportunity for that. You can’t help everyone, but in terms of wanting to disconnect rape from sex. Yes, it’s a sexual act, but it’s used to dominate people. It’s a violent act before it’s anything else, and that’s what I wanted to show.
How long have you been interested in colonialism? It seems that as a white person, you could go through your life not ever caring about this sort of thing. Did you have an awokening?
It’s something that started as a child. Whether we’re aware of it consciously or not, it sits in our DNA as a white Australian. I do a lot of meditation. I try and sort of sit still and be introspective and sensitive to what’s going on. I think when you are sensitive as an Australian, you can’t help but feel and then learn and then know that something very terrible happened in our country and continues to happen. I just cared to know more. I can’t speak to why people wouldn’t want to do that. I’m so perplexed. Without pointing the finger at Americans, I’m like, where are the Native American stories? What’s happening there is a similar story played out. It was important to me and it continues to be important to me to try and understand where I come from.
Do you think Australia, overall, has properly reckoned with its past?
I was taught that Tasmanian Aboriginal people were extinct in school. Can you imagine how painful that is, to be told you don’t exist, as an aboriginal person? Australians are comprised of a large group of people with very many concerns. As a nation, collectively, we are probably just starting to acknowledge this very important part of our history. It’s been a blind spot for years, just inflamed people to even talk about it. In making this film, I hope to be part of that conversation and to shed some light. For the screenings I’ve been present at, the audiences have been very conscious. A lot of people have communicated to me the need to take responsibility and stop using the excuses: “Oh it was 200 years ago.” How can we as a nation celebrate our fallen heroes in wars if we don’t acknowledge the very first war that we carried out on our own soil against the original inhabitants? It’s an ongoing thing, and I feel hopeful.
Given the difficulty of the conversation and the unsparing violence of the movie, did you receive any pushback or have obstacles executing your vision in any way?
No. We can an incredible financier in BRON, a Canadian company. They’ve been so supportive. Also Screen Australia and the Australian Film Corporation who’ve all been very supportive of this story being told. It was very difficult to make, and we didn’t get enough money to make it easy, that’s for sure, but they were very supportive of it. Even at the script stage, I didn’t have people saying, “You can’t write that,” because we know. We know these things happened. That would be revisionist to say.
The Babadook came out and was beloved, you received a bunch of offers, and you made a movie that will not be a blockbuster as your second film. Is it pure artistry that drives you to resist selling out?
To assume that’s the next step is someone else’s view of my life, which has no relation to me. I made a film that I cared deeply about, and then I made another film that I cared just as much about, if not more. I admire filmmakers like David Lynch who say, “I have this idea and I’m just going to serve the idea.” I feel very much the same. It’s really a process of finding the love and the idea and choosing something you want to stick with that’s important to you for all that time. It’s hard. It’s hard to make a film. They take a long time. It’s hard to get them made. It’s a terrible combination, art and commerce. It’s not conducive to making independent films, but there are a few stubborn ones. I was going to say I have a lot of hope, but I don’t know if that’s true. I do think it’s still possible to get them made, you just have to be prepared to make them on less money than they should take to make.
You’ve publicly discussed people walking out of this movie, but I wonder if it personally bothers you in any way when people don’t stick around to watch your entire film.
Not at all. I think everyone is their own keeper and carer and the walkouts have been exaggerated, ridiculously by very bad Australian journalism. We had our premiere in Adelaide, and there was a seven-minute standing ovation. Australians never give standing ovations. No one reported on that. It’s skewing it a certain way, and I like to think it’s ignorance rather than any malicious intent for the film. I really understand. I’ve hated a film, and then 10 years later it’s my favorite film. Even within my own taste and response to things, it changes. I’m not making films to please every human being. I don’t know people’s damage or what they’ve been through. Maybe it’s just not wise to sit through a film like this, in which case it would be best if they didn’t. It’s better that than to sit in misery.
You were at peace with that when you started the process of making this movie?
It’s of no consequence to me. I made the film. That was my job. I’m here now promoting it to make sure it’s safely and lovingly put out into the world, but it’s its own thing. People will make of it what they will. Plenty of people hated Babadook. It’s not like, “Oh I don’t care.” It’s just that it’s not relevant.
Justin Chang, in the L.A. Times, wrote that a lot of the response he heard at Sundance was gendered. Have you noticed that as well?
Well, no one’s going to come up to me and... Actually, that’s not true. I did get called a whore in Venice. But in a way, I prefer that because it’s not covert. It’s really base and clear what’s going on there. We live in 2019, there’s a lot of problems in the world. Gender is one of them. There’s a lot of ignorance, and that’s really all I’ve got to say. What can you do? You can’t make someone have an experience and evolve. It couldn’t have been made by a man, I don’t think, this film. But if it was, it probably would have been viewed differently—but that’s all hypothetical. I can’t comment on that. What I can say is a lot of men have really responded to it. I find that really great. Very heartening. Equal numbers of men have responded to women. It’s not a women’s film. It’s just a film. I feel very proud of that, that it’s equally affected men and women.