Friday, August 30, 2019

Taking on the Patriarchy with Rage and a Rifle in Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale

Woman, rage, rifle
(Jennifer Kent, Australia, 2018, 136 mins) 

"Women's rage is immense, and there's an ocean of it. It's not hard, being a woman, to find reasons to have rage."--Jennifer Kent to The New York Times

Five years and countless colorful memes later, Jennifer Kent, the Australian director behind The Babadook, turns to a different kind of horror in The Nightingale, her second full-length feature. Instead of the horrors of the domestic realm, she takes on the horrors of colonialism--and all of the racism and sexism that that implies. It's a tall task, but she's up to it. 

Clare (Aisling Franciosi, serial killer-smitten babysitter Katie Benedetto on RTÉ procedural The Fall), an Irish convict in 1825, is serving time for theft in a Tasmanian outpost where she receives preferential treatment from Lieutenant Hawkins (an absolutely terrifying Sam Claflin turning his Hunger Games character inside out). It's a form of slavery as she cooks, serves, and sings for his regiment. They're a rude, crude bunch, and she bears their leers and gropes as best she can, knowing that she has a loving husband and a baby waiting for her in the prison encampment.

Hawkins in full regalia
To Hawkins, Clare is "property," and he treats her accordingly (if the rape scenes aren't graphic, they're painfully raw). Her husband, Aidan (Michael Sheasby), suspects what's going on, but she refuses to confirm his suspicions for fear that he'll do something stupid. She would prefer to keep her head down until her three-years-overdue release. If she makes a single misstep, she could lose everything.

Unfortunately, Aidan's inability to keep his suspicions to himself puts him on a collision course with a man who will stop at nothing to assert his dominance. When Clare's worst fears are realized, and she loses everything, she sets out to take her revenge. She just has to figure out how to get to Hawkins and his men (including Damon Herriman, most recently seen as Manson in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood and Mindhunter) before he reaches his destination, several miles away, towards a promotion that he believes he deserves.

Out of desperation, she joins forces with Billy (Baykali Ganambarr, an untrained actor who is cool where she is hot), an Aboriginal tracker who knows the area. Neither one trusts the other, but she offers to pay him what little money she has. If the British soldiers treat the Irish convicts like the lowest of the low, Clare treats Billy as if he was lower, though his people have suffered even worse losses. The pecking order is clear; and the only thing lower than an Aboriginal man…is an Aboriginal woman.

The Nightingale is concerned with revenge in a way the The Babadook never was, but it's also concerned with motherhood and mourning. Kent just comes at these things in a more searingly direct way in this film. Essie Davis's widow in The Babadook has so much trouble dealing with her grief that it threatens to incinerate everything around her, while Clare doesn't have the time to grieve before she springs into action with rage and a rifle, but it catches up with her as vivid dreams that morph into nightmares.

Her only friend
As she and Billy travel through the woods, her privilege frequently gets the best of her. She wants to control the situation, but she's out of her depth and loath to rely on him any more than necessary. In interviews, Kent has acknowledged surface similarities with Nicolas Roeg's 1971 Walkabout, in which a British schoolgirl relies on a young Aboriginal man for her survival, but this is not that film. If anything, the relationship between Clare and Billy more closely resembles the one between Johnny Depp's accountant and Gary Farmer's guide in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. The indigenous character is more resourceful than his white companion, but he isn't some kind of mystical being. He's still a man (Kent has cited Fred Schepisi's 1978 The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith as a prime inspiration).

At times, Billy is downright goofy, like an overgrown child. He and Clare see and experience things that would try the hardiest of souls, but not everything is terrible. Though they never get the chance to notice the beauty of their surroundings, Kent (with the aid of Babadook cinematographer Radek Ladczuk) makes sure that we do. And if most of the British people are horrible--Hawkins above all--they meet a few kind souls along the way. In that sense, Clare recalls runaway slave Cora in Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. As tough and resilient as these young women may be, they couldn't survive without a little help.

The Nightingale, winner of the Special Jury Prize at last year's Venice Film Festival, was the only female-directed film in 2018's lineup. Towards the end of the screening, an Italian journalist, who subsequently lost his accreditation, yelled "Shame on you, whore, you’re disgusting!" He has since apologized, but to say that Kent's film--which is no more brutal than Quentin Tarantino's latest--has unsettled a few viewers would be an understatement at best. As Glenn Kenny noted in his review, "With one angrily shouted word, one awful person proved that the central thesis of the movie, that the world is run by men who hate women, remains absolutely correct."

Set 194 years in what should be a remote and distant past, The Nightingale feels timely in ways that should make all of us uncomfortable. 

The Nightingale opens at SIFF Cinema Uptown on Friday, August 30. Click here for more information. All images from Transmission Films / IFC.

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