‘The Nightingale’ Is Disturbing And Extremely Violent, And It Needs To Be
How do you tell a story about colonial Australia without it?
Content warning: this article discusses violent sexual assault, the Australian frontier wars, and brutal violence against Indigenous Australians. It also contains spoilers for The Nightingale.
When The Nightingale played at Sydney Film Festival earlier this week, crowds of people stood up and walked out of the cinema. Even the first fifteen minutes of the film has been described as too brutal to sit through, and with good reason.
The film, which is the latest from Australian director Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), centres on the story of Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a 21-year-old Irish convict in early colonial Tasmania, who suffers horrendous abuse at the hands of a British officer.
In the film’s first few minutes, Clare is raped, then raped again. British soldiers kill her baby and her husband in front of her. She pays a local Indigenous tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her pursue the officer in search of revenge, and the rest of the film unfolds in the Tasmanian wilderness in the midst of the frontier wars.
Violence against women, convicts and Indigenous people abounds, and never abates. It is an extremely difficult film to watch.
Jennifer Kent's #TheNightingale is unflinching, brutal and sadly the sort of ugly, human story that most period dramas try to ignore. Here's a still-shaken (and career best) Sam Claflin talking about how making the film has all but scarred him for life #SundanceLondon pic.twitter.com/qXuDwwYEdp
— Matt Brothers (@MattBrothers2) June 1, 2019
The walkouts have provoked intense criticism about the violence in this film, and the role of violence in films more generally. But while The Nightingale is harrowing, the brutality is necessary. By seeking to depict a truly brutal period of history honestly, the film has the potential to spark an important conversation about what it actually means for violence to be useful, even necessary, in film.
Crucially, audiences shouldn’t have to be surprised by that violence — The Nightingale will not be for everyone, and viewers deserve the chance to opt out. Indeed, Sydney Film Festival is somewhat to blame for the walkouts: neither the website nor the screenings of the film so far have featured a content warning, despite many of the violent scenes having the potential to be intensely distressing for many viewers, in particular Indigenous Australians and survivors of sexual assault.
But the fact that The Nightingale’s violence is not for everyone does not mean it was necessarily included in error. It may be impossible for a film to honestly reckon with this part of Australia’s history without it.
Indulgent Or Necessary: What Is The Point Of The Nightingale‘s Violence?
“Indulgent” and “gratuitous” are words we frequently use to describe violence in films.
The terms suggest a kind of on-screen violence that is so excessive as to no longer have a purpose; they imply that this violence is present only because a director or filmmaker somehow enjoyed it. It’s far from clear, though, what a film has to do in order to cross that line.
In the case of The Nightingale, some reviewers have already declared the violence in the film to be gratuitous, pointing to the fact that the film overwhelmed them. “Kent subjects us to a disturbing frequency of rape scenes, to the extent that it soon stops feeling like a jolt of brutal honesty and quickly becomes indulgent,” Chris Shortt writes in Film Era.
“If we weren’t aware of the historical atrocities committed by British soldiers across the colonies already, we certainly are by the fourth rape scene. What, then, of the fifth, or the sixth? What of the innumerable shots of gratuitous violence, levelled against exclusively black bodies?”
If the purpose of including violent rape scenes in the film was simply to make viewers aware that atrocities occurred in colonial Australia, a single scene may have sufficed. But what if the purpose was instead to overwhelm viewers with that brutality? What if the purpose of a rape scene is not to provide a “jolt of brutal honesty” but rather an unflinching portrait of a sustained assault, the kind of repeated, continuous violence that characterised early colonial Tasmania?
If a film’s purpose is to tell a story of unending brutality, how does it portray that violence without it being dismissed as indulgent or gratuitous?
THE NIGHTINGALE made me do something I thought I would never do. I walked out. There was a point when I just needed to take myself away from that brutal space. But I recognised that this is an important film so I walked back in and watched the rest of the movie.
— Jesue V (@jesuevalle) June 9, 2019
By delivering a portrait of sustained, unbearable violence, The Nightingale offers a rare, honest picture of Australia’s colonial past.
It’s hard to stress just how rare such a portrayal is. Education about the crimes committed by white settlers in this country is woefully lacking, and Tasmania’s past in particular is marked by many unmentioned massacres. In the early 1800s, white settlers massacred Indigenous Tasmanians and then covered up the killings. Before British colonisation began in 1803, thousands of Palawa people lived in Tasmania; around four decades later fewer than a hundred remained.
Today, many argue that this period of history should be considered a genocide.
The Nightingale is set in the midst of these massacres, and it depicts them with brutal detail. Kent’s decision to include that detail was made in collaboration with Indigenous people; Jim Everett, a Tasmanian Indigenous elder, worked as the film’s Indigenous Advisor and as an executive producer, and Kent sought his permission and guidance in telling the story.
“I wouldn’t have gone in to this story if I didn’t have a strong Aboriginal consultant,” Kent said in an interview recently. “It’s very, very important to us that we have permission to tell this story. And he said to me from the beginning, ‘This is a shared story. So you have my permission to tell it.”
In the film’s production notes, Everett writes that “I felt that as a fiction it reflected real history, and so I should give it my support”.
The Nightingale also involved experts in Palawa Kani, a reconstructed Indigenous Tasmanian language, and cast Indigenous actors from the Australian mainland. Indeed, while the conversation about the film has focused on the character of Clare and the sexual assaults she endures early on, the story is equally about Billy, the Indigenous tracker played by Baykali Ganambarr, and the violence he endures and witnesses.
Other Indigenous people may disagree with the direction The Nightingale took, but it’s curious that this film, of all films, is the one being derided for gratuitous violence when so much consideration and care has clearly gone into its creation.
Unlike the violent films of so many ‘auteurs’, The Nightingale selects its violence from history, with a clear purpose.
we celebrate 'auteurs' use of violence to make vague statements about our humanity, but this, a film rooted in history, is too garish??? well, as is our colonial history, and the genocide that took place in tasmaniahttps://t.co/DV0nyChKOY
— jared richards (@jrdjms) June 11, 2019
Indeed, the purpose of The Nightingale’s violence seems to have been on Jennifer Kent’s mind throughout the entire production of the film. Speaking at a Q&A after a Sydney Film Festival screening on Monday night, she defended the film against suggestions that its rape scenes were excessive, and not “tastefully” edited.
“If you look back at those scenes, there are no shots of women’s bodies, or women naked,” she said. “It’s all faces, close-ups of faces.” Compared to rape scenes in many films and TV shows — Game of Thrones, for instance, comes to mind — the scenes in The Nightingale avoid lingering on bodies, and focus on the trauma being experienced by victims. This doesn’t make the scenes any less brutal, but it might make them less indulgent, less gratuitous. It shows, quite clearly, that they are there for a reason.
On Monday, Kent also pointed out that “if we showed what really happened in Tasmania in 1825, no audience could bear it”. In doing so, she underscored the point that films like The Nightingale aren’t packed with violence because their creators have failed to draw a line. Kent considered the history she was trying to faithfully portray, and drew a line that included exactly the amount of violence she deemed necessary to portray it. Perhaps the most shocking thing about the film is that: the discovery that it held back.
Whether the film held back enough is still an open question. I’m still not sure where we should draw the line — how much violence is necessary in a story like this, and what exactly it achieves. The Nightingale raises important questions on this front, and it does the film a disservice to simply dismiss its violence as unnecessary without considering why it was included in the first place.
— Aisling Franciosi (@AisFranciosi) 11 June 2019
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. If you need support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. In an emergency, call 000.
Men can access anonymous confidential telephone counselling to help to stop using violent and controlling behaviour through the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.
Junkee is a proud media partner of Sydney Film Festival. The Nightingale will be released August 29 by Transmission Films in Australia.
Sam Langford is a staff writer at Junkee. You can follow them on Twitter at @_slangers.