Content warning: discussion of sexual violence and racist violence
Depictions of sexual violence in film are painfully numerous, enough so that the rape-revenge film has become its own niche genre with staples like “I Spit On Your Grave” (1978) and “Kill Bill” (2003). Retroactively viewing these films can be a bit uncomfortable now due to their sensitive subject matter. With the #MeToo movement bringing sexual violence to the forefront of the zeitgeist, some shy away from rape-revenge narratives due to their tip-toeing on the line between accurate depiction and avoiding exploitation.
Jennifer Kent’s sophomore feature “The Nightingale” (2018) is a rape-revenge film with a crucial difference from many others: the story is written, directed, and produced by a woman. The historical thriller follows Clare Carroll (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict in custody of British colonizers in early 1800s Australia. One night, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) bursts into Clare’s home. There, Hawkins and two other British soldiers rape Clare then murder her husband and infant, then attempt to murder her. The scene is lengthy and unnerving; with a soundtrack of wails and thuds. Miraculously, Clare survives the attack.
In her quest for revenge, Clare takes off on a horse and brings along Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal man, as her guide. Clare and Billy’s friendship carries the film. Billy is enslaved and has been mistreated by the British and by Clare, who treats him as lesser than at first. Clare slowly reveals to Billy what’s happened to her and they grow closer through their experiences of trauma. Their trauma is distinct but related through its connection to British colonial violence. Wedged between harsh, heart-pounding scenes, Clare and Billy’s friendship is beautiful and caring. It shows what can come from true solidarity. While most of the film feels cold and sharp, the scenes between Clare and Billy are warm and soft. They learn to care for each other and protect each other from harm despite their initial distrust of each other.
“The Nightingale” walks the line between accurate representation and trauma porn, which is an ongoing struggle in the film world and for survivors of all kinds of violence.
Though brutally violent and difficult to watch, the atrocious racist and sexist acts depicted are accurate to history. British colonizers in Australia were known to rape and murder Aboriginal people and other outsiders, like Clare, an Irish convict. The violence is painful to sit through without squirming. At some festival screenings, viewers left less than an hour into the film.
“The Nightingale” walks the line between accurate representation and trauma porn, which is an ongoing struggle in the film world and for survivors of all kinds of violence. On one hand, the violence shown on-screen is a reminder of the not-so-pretty past and a warning to not repeat it. Yet, on the other hand, it can cause unnecessary pain for those healing from racist and sexist colonial violence. For some, the film may provide a space for catharsis, but for others, it may only instigate a spiral. Healing takes different shapes for each person. Taking this into account, those who are healing from violence should take extra care when viewing “The Nightingale.”
Star rating: 3.5/5 stars