All art is political. This once-contested certitude – that one’s artistic endeavors will, invariably, be in some way shaped by privilege and the socio-political climate that surrounds us – seems to have been largely accepted by the masses, allowing for a wealth of new viewpoints and cavities for critique. In its stead, a new moral quandary has emerged: is there a limit to what art should depict? If so, what are these boundaries? And who decides whether the accepted limits are enough, given our own varying levels of privilege and lived experience?
These are just some of the overarching questions that Jennifer Kent’s contentious sophomore feature, The Nightingale, has raised already – months before its general release. A grueling, deeply provocative rape-revenge tale that’s heavy on the former and unconvincing at the latter, The Nightingale relishes in its transgression. And while it attempts to tackle sensitive themes ranging from British colonial hubris to sexual violence and mass Aboriginal genocide, Kent’s film rarely ever comes close to justifying its relentlessly aggressive form.
In Tasmania, 1825, a garrison of British troops lives a hedonistic, if monotonous existence at a remote settlement amidst the wilderness. Led by the heinous Officer Hawkins (Sam Claflin), the men find comfort in drinking away their tedium at the local pub – expelling their various dissatisfactions at the particular expense of Clare (Aisling Franciosi), the titular ‘Nightingale’ who entertains the troops with her avian ballads. When Clare’s husband (Michael Sheasby) grows increasingly aware of her abusive mistreatment from Officer Hawkins, the pair – along with their newborn child – decide to pack up and flee to the next town.
Evidently, all does not go to plan. When tensions boil over and tragedy strikes in an intensely divisive confrontation, barely 15 minutes into the film, it’s a crucial turning point for both Clare and the audience – prompting us both to decide which avenues we should direct our disgust and anger towards. For Clare, that path is straightforward revenge: enlisting an Aboriginal tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), to help navigate the harsh Tasmanian woodlands and confront her abusers.
For viewers, however, it’s a journey of ever-growing doubt and repugnance; 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. 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, leveled against exclusively black bodies?
As The Nightingale trudges on, it becomes harder and harder to continue justifying such content – with any cognizance beyond ‘white men in authority are evil’ becoming duly lost in the mud. What is it with deplorable, racist white men and cinema’s undying wish to humanize them? Whilst Hawkins’ entourage rarely develops beyond what has been sufficiently established by the film’s opening salvo, Kent seems intent on offering them moments of sympathy – constructing a mundane and narratively messy hierarchy of authority that never once ascends beyond its rudimentary “be-a-man” commentary on white masculinity. That Kent spends so much time musing over hierarchies of authority, all the while overlooking her own jurisdiction on telling this story of racialized, colonial violence, is an irony that I was too worn-down by to find any joy in.
There are seeds to be found that, in some alternate universe, point to a less misguided and more rewarding version of this film. In the one we live in, however, there are frankly enough similar attempts to tackle Kent’s chosen themes in a manner that doesn’t feel exploitative and, quite often, racist. While it continues to divide viewers on its sticky gender politics, Jane Campion’s The Piano offers just as piercing a critique on Oceanic colonialism and the menace of male authority figures. Lucrecia Martel was similarly interested in the dangerous monotony of officers stationed for so long that it becomes imprisonment in Zama; while Sweet Country brilliantly illustrates the ways in which Aboriginal struggle can be rendered on-screen in a sufficiently empathetic manner without holding back on the requisite violence.
In the end, perhaps The Nightingale is of most use to us as a warning sign – as yet another instance of cinema rearing its ugly head under the guise of being ‘extreme’ or ‘bold’ in what is deemed to be ‘necessary’ storytelling. And while ambition itself can rarely be faulted in cinema, when it looks and sounds as repugnant as this one does, you might find yourself asking just what it’s all worth.