The Nightingale (Preview)
Reviewed by Graham Fuller


Produced by Kristina Ceyton, Steve Hutensky, Jennifer Kent, and Bruna Papandrea; written and directed by Jennifer Kent; production design by Alex Holmes; music by Jed Kurzel; cinematography by Radek Ladczuk; edited by Simon Njoo; costume design by Margot Wilson; starring Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Sam Claflin, Damon Herriman, Charlie Jampijinpa Brown, Michael Sheasby, Harry Greenwood, Charlie Shotwell, Ewen Leslie, Magnolia Maymuru, and Nathaniel Dean. Color, 136 min., English dialogue and Gaelic and Palawa kani dialogue with English subtitles. An IFC Films release.

In The Babadook, Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent’s lauded 2014 feature debut, the single mother Amelia manifests the grief she suppressed following her husband’s untimely death in the shape of a Dr. Caligari-esque bogeyman that menaces her and her six-year-old son. In Kent’s second film, The Nightingale, set in 1825 Van Diemen’s Land (the British penal colony renamed Tasmania in 1856), the twenty-one-year-old Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is raped consecutively by two English soldiers, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who shoots her husband dead, and Sergeant Ruse (Damon Herriman); ordered to silence Clare’s screaming baby daughter, the nervous younger soldier Jago (Harry Greenwood) throws her down, killing her. Unlike Amelia, Clare doesn’t bury her grief. Seething with fury, she embarks immediately on a murderous revenge quest. Whereas the horror in The Babadook is psychological and fable-like, dealing as that film does with the return of the repressed, the horror in The Nightingale is realistic and all too relevant in the modern age of war rape (not to mention the #MeToo era).

The historical backdrop of The Nightingale is Britain’s colonization of Ireland and Van Diemen’s Land. Following the crushing of the Irish rebellion by British Crown forces in 1798, the 1800 Acts of Union united Ireland with Britain and abolished the Irish Parliament. Van Diemen’s Land was annexed by the British colony of New South Wales in September 1803, and the original forty-nine settlers included twenty-one male and three female convicts. In the period from then until 1853, Van Diemen’s Land received 73,000 convicts (forty-five per cent of the total transported to Australia). Sixty-seven thousand were sent from British and Irish ports; 12,500 of them were women, of whom an estimated 4,594 were Irish, according to a new calculation by Dianne Snowden, President of the Female Convicts Research Center in South Hobart, Tasmania, and co-author with Joan Kavanagh of Van Diemen’s Women: A History of Transportation to Tasmania (2015).

Many Irish women were convicted for petty larceny committed in the hope that it would lead to a better life in Australia or allow them to rejoin their husbands. The Nightingale’s Clare, transported when she was fourteen, has served the seven years of her sentence and been allowed by Hawkins to marry a fellow convict, Aidan (Michael Sheasby), but the lieutenant refuses to sign her letter of recommendation for release, prompting a risky complaint by Aidan. Disgruntled by his posting in a backwater army camp, Hawkins has seemingly been raping Clare for years, and also keeps her around to sing for and serve his men in the local tavern. Upbraided for his lax management of the camp by a visiting captain (whom he and Ruse privately deride as a homosexual), Hawkins resolves to trek through the dangerous bush to demand redeployment in the northern Launceston camp. He departs after he, Ruse, and Jago have devastated Clare’s family.

Director Jennifer Kent.

The male–female imbalance (reckoned between four to one and eight to one) on Van Diemen’s Land was a major factor in the onset of the genocidal Black War (1824–1831). Nicholas Clements writes in The Black War: Fear, Sex, and Resistance in Van Diemen’s Land (2014) that this guerrilla conflict originated in the “gin raiding” of Aboriginal homes by convict settlers, who would seize women, rape them continually for a week, then torture and kill them. One of the most appalling episodes in The Nightingale is Hawkins and Ruse’s capture of a young Aborigine mother, Lowanna (Magnolia Maymuru), whom they rape and Hawkins kills. Significantly, seventy-five per cent of the two hundred white deaths during the war were of male convicts between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. The Aboriginal reprisals prompted white vigilantes supported by the colonial government to conduct successive massacres of the Aborigines, during which close to one thousand of them were killed, many viciously; only a hundred or so Aborigines survived the war, and the last full-blooded indigenous Tasmanian died in 1876 or 1905.

After some audience members reacted negatively to the rape scenes in the film during screenings at the Sydney Film Festival in June, Kent issued a statement in which she defended their inclusion and said, “If we showed what really happened in Tasmania in 1825, no audience could bear it.” Atrocities perpetrated on Aborigines by white settlers during the Black War included child rape, horrific baby murders, branding, castration, and other forms of mutilation; there also were incidences of cannibalism. (In June, the multimedia artist Julie Gough, who is of Trawlwoolway Aborigine descent on her mother’s side, launched an exhibition, “Tense Past,” based on her forensic investigations into the Van Diemen’s Land genocide; it runs through November 3 at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart.)

As Kent says, she necessarily downplayed the terrorizing of the indigenous population. Because of its relatively modest scale, the film obviously could not show the scope of convict settlement in Van Diemen’s Land, as indicated by the statistics above. For reasons of palatability, it could not depict the extremity of white male outrages against female and child convicts and Aborigines of both sexes. But it amply demonstrates in microcosm the inherent barbarity of the colonizing of the island—as, say, Kelly Reichardt’s small-scale revisionist Western Meek’s Cutoff (2010) demonstrated how racism was intrinsic to Manifest Destiny in its story of a few white pioneers and a Native American man they take captive on the Oregon Trail…

To read the complete review, click here so that you may order either a subscription to begin with our Fall 2019 issue, or order a copy of this issue.

Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste, Inc.

Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 4