Five years after the release of her breakout film The Babadook, Australian director Jennifer Kent is back with another harrowing horror flick—only this time, its subject isn’t likely to become a queer meme. Instead, The Nightingale’s true story details the dark history of colonization, rape, and torture central to Australia’s past. No memes here.
In Kent’s latest endeavor, audiences follow the story of Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict on Van Dieman’s Land—the original name for the Australian penal island of Tasmania throughout its British colonial rule in the nineteenth century. Clare, her husband, and infant child are bound as indentured servants to one of these British colonists, an army officer by the name of Hawkins (Sam Claflin). Turns out, Hawkins—despite his handsome look—is this film’s monster.
Trigger Warning: The content below deals with issues of sexual assault/violence.
Our “little nightingale,” Clare, is the subject of Hawkins’ abuse in the film’s earliest moments. The Nightingale reportedly features “multiple brutal rape scenes in its first 30 minutes,” proving too much for some audience members to handle. While the film was only released in Australia on August 29, 2019, earlier screenings of The Nightingale saw countless audience members walking out of the film.
Director Jennifer Kent was weary about this reaction, telling Bustle, “If you break down the film in those moments, it’s people’s faces [you’re seeing]. And I find it fascinating that that’s what people are uncomfortable with—the hatred and the rage. It’s not the blood and viscera that makes people uncomfortable.” Which is an interesting take—to Kent, it appears suffering only hits too close to home when its subject is emotionally wrought, and very, very real. Yet should she be surprised that audiences had the reaction they did? Sexual violence isn’t the supernatural stuff of Babadook, after all.
Still, Kent believes that scenes like these are essential. It was important to the director to showcase the realities of 1825s-era Tasmania, with all its painful violence and racism to boot. Yep, racism. Not only do audiences witness Clare’s abuse; we are later introduced to an Aboriginal guide, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), who also suffered at the hands of colonizers. He aids Clare in her plan for vengeance because he has been similarly violated—only this violation was one of mass Aboriginal genocide.
This indigenous perspective was a key to Kent’s process: “I can’t go in and abuse people who’ve [already] been so badly abused by not respecting their culture and allowing them to have a voice in the story,” she told Bustle. She took time to find a team of Aboriginal culture consultants—from Jim Everett, a Plangermairreenner who advised on costume and dance, to Theresa Sainty, who reinvigorated the script with a rare native dialect. To this end, Kent made every attempt to support the history and culture of The Nightingale.
It’s an effort that allows The Nightingale’s audiences to reckon with the ugliest parts of human history. And what better horror is there than the truth?