September 2019

Arts & Letters

Tasmanian torments: Jennifer Kent’s ‘The Nightingale’

By Harry Windsor
The Babadook director talks about the necessity of violence in her colonial drama

As the Australian filmmakers who have emerged over the past 15 years have demonstrated, following up an acclaimed debut is an especially devilish task. It makes sense: first films are long in the gestation and done for the love. Afterwards the newly feted director, feeling the pressure to strike while the iron is hot, attaches to an existing, often rickety project that pays well, or dusts off a script from the bottom drawer that should have stayed there.

Debut features don’t come much more acclaimed than The Babadook, Jennifer Kent’s 2014 horror film that gave postnatal depression a vivid, violent form. William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, famously declared that he’d never seen a more terrifying film. Along with It Follows (2014) and The Witch (2015), Kent’s film was seen as inaugurating a new wave of indie horror, female-fronted and less interested in creaky floorboards than in capturing a certain unease – a dawning awareness of an unbridgeable divide between oneself and one’s community.

So it’s to Kent’s credit that her new film is both a departure from the genre that made her name and very much her own. It’s also even more taboo-tackling than its predecessor. Set in Tasmania in 1825, The Nightingale (in cinemas now) is the story of an Irish convict (Aisling Franciosi) hunting three abusive English officers through dense bushland with the aid of an Indigenous tracker (dancer and first-time actor Baykali Ganambarr). The barbarism of what she endures contrasts with the beauty of the land, and of her voice – hence the title.

I meet Kent, a smiling auburn-haired figure in an emerald cardie, in a hotel room overlooking Sydney Harbour. She’s in town to screen her film at the Sydney Film Festival, and frustrated that jet lag will prevent her from seeing anything else. Travelling constantly for work – she’s currently writing a script about Greenpeace activists in Antarctica for the Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur – means she’s prone to nodding off in a darkened cinema.

Growing up in Brisbane, Kent moved to Sydney after school to attend the National Institute of Dramatic Art, graduating in 1991. She spent the next dozen years as an actor, with gigs on Murder Call and All Saints and the occasional tiny film role (she pops up briefly in George Miller’s 1998 sequel Babe: Pig in the City). Stage work with Bell Shakespeare and the Sydney Theatre Company was supplemented by teaching acting at NIDA and elsewhere.

And then, in an origin tale she must be tired of rehashing, Kent saw Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) and emailed the Danish filmmaker, asking if she could shadow him in lieu of film school. Eventually flying over to the Swedish set of Dogville (2003), she had the “good fortune, I say – some would say misfortune” to watch the famously exacting auteur at work. The biggest takeaway, Kent says, was that directors are human. “And that might sound ridiculous. Of course all directors are human. But what I realised in seeing Lars go through that film was that he struggled.”

Kent hasn’t appeared onscreen since 2003, but her move behind the camera came not, she says, from any particular dissatisfaction with acting. Rather, she re-discovered a childhood impulse to “tell stories, write plays and get people to be in them” that had been discouraged at NIDA, where the demarcation between writers and actors was absolute.

By her own estimation The Babadook made “15 cents” in Australia, but the film’s reception in the United States, where it premiered at Sundance, upended her career almost overnight. “It was like suddenly being the popular girl at school that everyone wanted to know,” she says, with a laugh. Kent told prospective agents in Los Angeles that she had no immediate interest in returning to horror, and signed with the ones who looked least disappointed by the news. But even they were confused by her next decision: to make what she describes as a “dark colonial drama” back home.

The Nightingale shares some DNA with a script Kent wrote before The Babadook and discarded, about the daughter of a British officer in Tasmania. But the new film came out of a very current anxiety – the writer-director’s sense of “an encroaching lack of empathy in the world”. The redcoats at its centre, played by Sam Claflin and Damon Herriman, are vicious, raping and murdering with casual glee. Their remorselessness is set against the humanity of Clare (Franciosi), and her companion, Billy (Ganambarr), both struggling to maintain an identity under the colonial yoke.

There was a danger, Kent admits, of the whole thing being schematic or simplistic. Of making a false equivalence between the two leads, and flattening both. But her facility with actors means none of the characters play as cartoons – even the sadists. Casting the brutal role eventually played by Claflin was, she says, especially hard, delaying production for almost a year. Brooklyn-based Australian actor Daniel Henshall, who had a small part in The Babadook and once studied under Kent, says he’s aware of at least two actors who didn’t want the role. “They didn’t see what she wanted to do with it,” he says. “They thought it was two-dimensional. But you know with her it’s going to be fleshed out.” Henshall recalls that it was “such a comfort to go on set with someone of her taste”.

Where Kent’s first film was largely housebound, The Nightingale is one long muddy slog through the ferny wilderness of Van Diemen’s Land. Tasmania has long been an object of fascination for the director; a mist-wreathed landscape that’s “dark and sad but also very beautiful”. The state’s horrific colonial history also made it a fitting location for a story about residual love unextinguished by truly Boschian torments. The film is both rooted in period detail and reminiscent of a very dark fairytale, in which a girl goes into the woods and emerges a different person. Kent was interested in Tasmania’s mythic qualities as an isolated island, though “the gravity of what happened to the Aboriginal people there, and the sadness that was inflicted upon convict women” makes her “hesitate to use the word fairytale publicly”.

Though The Nightingale was shot by Radek Ładczuk, the Polish cinematographer who also worked on The Babadook, the new film couldn’t look more different. The decision to shoot in Academy ratio rather than widescreen – the more obvious option for a film in which the landscape plays a significant role – came out of Kent’s admiration for the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. Her decision to eschew cumbersome lighting set-ups wherever possible was informed by the Baroque artist Georges de La Tour. Ładczuk lit the interiors largely by candlelight, and Kent insisted on real campfire for the night shoots. “Because, you know, light boxes don’t look real,” she says. “It was a bit of a logistical nightmare.”

Already it’s clear that The Nightingale will be divisive. The film’s Venice Film Festival premiere last September was marred by an Italian journalist who hurled bizarrely personal abuse at the director at the conclusion of a press screening – Kent later responded with characteristic empathy. The film’s first Sydney Film Festival screening saw walkouts aplenty, and it was reported that one audience member had loudly objected to the film’s rape scenes as she exited. In the wake of #MeToo and the phenomenal success of Game of Thrones, oft-criticised for the casual expediency of its rape scenes, the depiction of sexual violence onscreen has never been more contested.

“Which is perplexing to me,” says Kent, exhibiting the barest flicker of pique. “I don’t read reviews, but the thing that has filtered back to me is this outrage about the rape, even from women. And I don’t know what to say about that, because I stand by my depiction.” Those who question her right to depict rape “have no knowledge of my personal history with sexual violence”, she says. “And on a broader level, convict women in this era were repeatedly raped. To omit that would be a lie and a falsehood.

“If you believe statistics, most violence is on the decrease, but sexual violence is on the increase around the world. So why can’t we talk about it? And in a film like The Nightingale, where it shows the attempted genocide of a whole race of people, why is that not more shocking?”

As with Snowtown in 2011, which drove critics as otherwise unaligned as Richard Wilkins and Helen Garner to despair, the response seems more about the decision to portray such violence at all than about the way it is depicted, which isn’t, relatively speaking, particularly graphic. Kent scrupulously avoids nudity in moments of sexual violence, for instance, focusing instead on faces. Elaine Barrett, a clinical psychologist and the director’s long-time friend, was present on set, and scenes were choreographed over five rehearsals with the actors. “Aisling’s a petite woman,” Kent says. “You can’t [just] throw an actress around on a table.”

Franciosi herself is a Game of Thrones alumnus, and her response to the controversy echoes a stoush that played out online over a line of dialogue in the show’s final season. According to the actor Jessica Chastain and others, the line implied that rape built character. “I think people can be quick to assume,” says Franciosi, “that any film that has a rape scene is using it as a plot point to the make the female character ‘find’ her strength. It bothers me, because it’s far too simplistic a way of talking about both rape and women’s strength.”

Melbourne academic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, the author of two books about rape-revenge films, suspects that discomfort with the film is tied to the gender of its maker. “What makes The Nightingale so interesting to me is not that people have reacted strongly to these clearly upsetting images,” she says, “but that it reveals assumptions about women’s filmmaking more generally. There’s a long history of women making films that feature rape scenes, going back at least to Ida Lupino’s Outrage in 1950, but I still believe there is a mainstream assumption that women make certain types of films. Ones with graphic violence – sexual or otherwise – do not fall into that terrain.”

The two films Kent has made so far are both concerned primarily with trauma: how it affects victims and changes the way they perceive the world. The Babadook even floats the risky proposition that the experience of trauma can make one monstrous. There are moments in both films in which the heroine is unsure if she’s awake or asleep, in which her subjective experience becomes suspect. The starkest reminder in The Nightingale that we’re in the hands of a director The New York Times compared to Polanski on the evidence of her very first film, comes in the form of dream sequences, in which Clare is assailed by old loves, enemies and even victims.

Kent found these nightmares easy to write, because she’d lived them. “I’ll probably be terribly over-analysed for exposing this,” she says, laughing, “but I used to have a recurring dream that I’d murdered someone. I didn’t ever kill someone in the dream – I just had the guilt. How could I have done that? I’d wake up, and I felt it in my body.” The spectre of bodily possession animated The Babadook, but it is unabstracted in The Nightingale. Clare might be treated like chattel, but she still has it much better than Billy or the members of an Indigenous chain gang they meet fleetingly.

Kent’s next film, based on a true story of two girls separated after falling in love in 1890s Memphis, will continue the theme. Alice + Freda Forever will mark her first American film, and she admits to trepidation about venturing “into Trumpland”. The plan was to shoot in Georgia, a film production hub, but restrictive abortion laws there have led to various production companies boycotting the state in protest. “It will destroy their economy,” Kent says, “but they won’t [repeal], because they’re just such right-wing, fascist wankers.”

Kent seemed eager, during The Babadook’s rollout, to be seen as more than just a genre filmmaker – she’s on an Ingmar Bergman binge at the moment – though she’s at pains during our interview to trumpet her love for horror. She namechecks her compatriot James Wan’s “genuinely frightening” and “well made” The Conjuring (2013), but is irked by the fact that some critics have called The Nightingale a “rape-revenge” movie. “It has rape in it, it has revenge in it, but the whole construct of a rape-revenge film is about going into the violence and celebrating it.”

Whether that’s true is up for debate. As Heller-Nicholas points out, both rape and revenge can be found in a hugely varied range of films: everything from the grindhouse gore-fests with which the rape-revenge tag is still most associated – such as 1972’s Last House on the Left – to Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, which won the Swede an Oscar in 1961.

What seems undeniable is that Kent’s decision to have her heroine Clare cast off the role of avenging angel has confounded some. Indeed critical quibbling so far seems less about the sexual violence in the film than its final third, in which Clare’s bloodlust dissipates. Some people, the director acknowledges, have been frustrated, but the character’s paralysis in the presence of her abuser is true to life. “I see so many films where violence plays out in a way that is all about retribution and catharsis, but you only have to turn on the news to know that’s not the reality. And people don’t like that. And too bad if you don’t like it, that’s my point.”

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a Sydney-based writer.

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