In reckoning with the horrors of colonialism, Jennifer Kent’s film implicates the audience in the graphic acts of sexual and racial violence it depicts.
The dread I felt in the pit of my stomach arrived before I had even entered the theatre. The content warning outside warned of violence against indigenous peoples and sexual violence that could be triggering to viewers, but that still did not prepare me for Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, despite the fact that the brutality of the film – in particular, its multiple rape scenes – has been a point of controversy since its premiere at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. I knew what was coming, but in the first 20 minutes of the film, I felt my body tense up in anticipation of what I was about to see.
Early reviews for The Nightingale have generally included a few broad statements. Writers warn against the film’s violence, saying that audiences who thought they were getting a gothic horror film akin to Kent’s debut feature The Babadook should prepare themselves for a punishing rape-revenge thriller instead. The validity of showing graphic rape and hate crimes on screen has also been called into question. Critical discussions around the mechanisms through which filmmakers depict violence are necessary. But why have people been so quick to categorise The Nightingale as not horror when it so vividly explores terrors of the female and indigenous experience in both British Imperial-era Australia and beyond?
Set in the early 19th century, the film centres on Clare (Aisling Franciosi), who lives on the British penal colony Van Diemen’s Land (known today as the Australian state of Tasmania) with her husband and their infant daughter. After she is brutally gang-raped by a British officer named Hawkins (Sam Claflin) and his underlings, we follow Clare and her Tasmanian Aboriginal guide, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), as they set out in the harsh wilderness to exact revenge on the men. As the film progresses, we see the carnage of British colonisation as Hawkins and his fellow soldiers rape, murder and torture Tasmanian Aboriginal people and the female convicts of the island. We also see how Clare and Billy’s quest for retribution chips away at their sanity and humanity, showing how no sense of justice can ameliorate the total loss experienced by the protagonists.
Superficially, The Nightingale reads as a gothic historical thriller, but Kent frequently makes aesthetic and thematic choices that are far removed from period drama, making a strong argument that it is intended to be read as a horror. Whereas B-movie monsters, ghouls and serial killers tap into a more basic existential fear of death, the terror of The Nightingale stems from the historic colonisation and genocide of indigenous peoples. The bloodshed on screen, including the aforementioned rape scenes and other instances of sadistic violence against Tasmanian Aboriginals, is tantamount to a slasher film – but it’s all the more gut-wrenching because we know that the events portrayed really happened of Van Diemen’s Land and countless other places like it.
In the few instances that Kent employs the more mystical tropes of the horror genre, they still reinforce the mechanisms of violence used against women and indigenous people around the world. While trekking through the Tasmanian forest with Billy, Clare’s nighttime visions blur the line between the real and supernatural. She has vivid dreams of her dead husband, hears her baby’s cries, and sees hallucinations of the bloody, mangled body of the first British soldier she killed. Later in the film, she believes she sees another apparition in her dreams, this time of a man lurking in the shadowy forest and implying that he intends to sexually assault her in the same manner that Hawkins did.
Clare realises that this is not a dream but a tangible present threat and quickly flees her and Billy’s makeshift campground. The fear that Clare – and in turn the audience – experiences is rooted in the ever-present threat of sexual violence which women face; The Nightingale uses its hallucinations and frights to translate this aspect of marginalisation to a cinematic context. There is no need for Kent to create imagined horrors because these cruel violations of human autonomy and safety are terrifying enough on their own.
The horror genre has long been used to reckon with society’s moral and political failures, harking all the way back to Mary Shelley’s original ‘Frankenstein’ text. Modern day auteur-driven horror films such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Julia Ducournau’s Raw and Kent’s own The Babadook have drawn on the well-worn tropes of the genre to explore the experiences of the marginalised and the oppressed. They communicate fears that are specific to the black, mentally ill and female experience by leaning into the anxiety and potential violence that comes from being “othered” by a predominantly white, male-dominated society.
The concern with films like The Nightingale is that their genre trappings undermine the seriousness of their subject, making the injustices shown on screen less ‘real’. But by understanding Kent’s film through the critical frame of genre, we as viewers – especially as non-indigenous and/or male viewers – are able to better understand the true horrors Kent depicts: white supremacy, its inherent misogyny, and the cyclical patterns that have allowed hate and prejudice to spread throughout different countries and eras.
The horror of The Nightingale may be far removed from the lives of many who watch it, but it exposes a dark part of our shared history that we all must reckon with, making it one of the most powerful entries into the genre in recent memory.
Published 13 Aug 2019
Both films deal with difficult themes relating to female coming of age.
Jennifer Kent follows up The Babadook with a devastating interrogation of Australia’s dark past.
By Kaite Welsh
All hail the lusty, bitchy antiheroine of Clive Barker’s visceral 1987 body horror.