The evil that men do
This harrowing tale of revenge written and directed by Jennifer Kent, the director of The Babadook, is a story of the real horrors of colonialism, racism, misogyny — of all the terrible things men do to each other and to women. Revenge movies are a dime a dozen as they usually entail men in pursuit of avenging violence. The Nightingale is about male violence, and the avengers are a woman and her aboriginal guide Billy (the excellent Gaykali Banambarr). The movie is also about the foundation of Australia, which was a British penal colony. The oppression of women and the aboriginals merge into one continuum of senseless cruelty and destruction.
Clare (the excellent Aisling Franciosi) is a young Irish convict, married to an Irishman and mother of a sweet baby. She is abused by an arrogant Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin, great in a thankless role) who will not give her back her freedom long after she has paid her debt to society. He lords over an unruly company of drunkards, is given to too much drink himself, but he has a superior and just as Clare wants to be discharged from her bond, he wants to be ascended from his. His superior, who seems relatively sensible, is of course, mostly absent, as higher ups tend to be when the mayhem they instigate hits the fan.
Hawkins is a powerless man, and he takes it out on the even more powerless than him. The movie graphically depicts rape and is relentless on the savagery of the colonizing army. Rape and colonization are cut of the same cloth. What is colonization if not the rape of a land and its people?
I understand that some people objected to the depiction of rape in this movie. I think Jennifer Kent has nothing to apologize for. The violence is not exploitative, but illuminating, it seeks to show the horrifying reality, the ease with which men can rape and the difficulty for women to get it punished. The shame, the pain, the humiliation, the horror. There is nothing in these scenes that is prurient, as they show that rape is not a sexual turn on, but an abuse of power. I find the endless male violence in movies offensive, how death and destruction are portrayed so cavalierly, as if it’s all cartoonish entertainment. We rarely see the actual pain nor the consequences of such violence. Here we do. Most movies are a glorification of male power. The Nightingale is a movie against male power. It’s about time.
The lieutenant makes Clare pay dearly for his own frustrations and so she is bent on revenge. As opposed to Tarantino’s facile revenge fantasies, where we cheer revenge because it is a fantasy, here revenge is depicted with unflinching realism. Revenge is a visceral and powerful mechanism, in life and in film. In movies, we vicariously enjoy seeing the malefactors punished. But in The Nightingale revenge is punishing for everyone. I got more satisfaction watching the British soldiers traverse the beautiful yet inhospitable Tasmanian bush, savoring the fact that the colonial misadventures they brought upon themselves were punishing than by rooting for Clare to exact her revenge.
Kent does not sell revenge as a simple cathartic experience but as a bitter, complex, questionable endeavor. By pursuing it, Clare puts herself and Billy through hell, and she has a brief moment where she reasons to herself that this pursuit is madness. But it is clear she does not have much of a choice. As a convict, who will believe her, or come to her defense? Who will believe her word over that of a male lieutenant? Her culture is brutally judgmental. She is at the end of her rope.
Yet Clare is also a creature of her benighted culture so she is also contemptuous, afraid, and disrespectful of Billy. Still, it turns out that the colonizers cannot live without the help of the aboriginals they stole their land from. It is a bizarre symbiotic relationship, not dissimilar to that of the American slaveholders and their slaves. Of course the irony is that the British – or any other European conquerors – who preached the gospel of civilization as they raped, murdered, plundered and sowed disease were far more bestial in the name of their own moral superiority than the people they oppressed.
As they pursue the lieutenant, Clare and Billy are forced to bond, not only because they need each other to survive, but because they are both victims of oppression. The parallels between them are uncanny. Even though the film is realistic, Kent infuses it with some symbolism, with dreams and portents that are still rooted in reality: Clare is suffering from PTSD. She is a nightingale, as she sings beautifully, and Billy a blackbird. But they both suffer from rank, needless injustice so they end up banding together.
Movies that are about outrageous historical injustice can be hard going. 12 Years A Slave, for instance, meant to punish the audience. The Nightingale confronts male violence head on, but it is riveting. Even though the British are mostly presented as horrors, Kent attempts to give them nuance. The Lieutenant is a smug monster of frustration. A liar engorged by his rank, he abuses his power because it’s the only way he knows how to function under the circumstances. He does not have the decency, or even the self-awareness to curtail his cruelty. He resents Clare’s beautiful singing, I assume because he thinks succumbing to her art weakens him.
His soldiers basically repeat the cycle, abusing those below them. I suspect this is true of most violent expeditions in history, be it wars or conquests. However, it is worth noting that the most brutal revenge violence is reserved for the ineffectual soldier who seems to have a conscience, who could say something but who is too afraid so he follows orders to end up committing the most heinous crime. Depraved people like Hawkins always need accomplices. They goad others to evil so they can spread the blame around.
If they saw this movie, the Victorians would be taken aback to find out that their “civilizing” efforts were utterly racist, cruelly myopic and destructive. These are people who sent convicts to colonize a land that did not belong to them. The milieu is both Dickensian (one of these convicts is a young orphaned boy who tries to be tough in the face of savagery), and touched by the tropical malady of colonization, the heart of darkness where the white man loses his marbles, reminiscent of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now and of Werner Herzog’s insane megalomaniac conquerors, Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo.
The film is beautifully shot in a square ratio, the acting is superb and Kent is a controlled, careful, smart director. It’s a long movie with perhaps too many twists but they all serve a clear psychology. In the end, truth outs and revenge happens in waves and in different forms. Do we feel sated and fulfilled? Not quite, and that is the honest power of this movie.