“What do you do with your bad men?”
This question is asked by the main protagonist Clare (Aisling Franciosi), to her Aboriginal companion Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), towards the final act of The Nightingale, directed by Jennifer Kent. Clare is wondering whether the indigenous communities of Tasmania tolerate sadistic behaviour within their own ranks to the same extent as the British colonialists. According to Billy; the answer is no. “We kill them.” In small scale collectivist societies, men who seek to harm others for their own selfish gain are a threat to the societal structure, so they are eliminated. In a military colony, such behaviour is not just tolerated but rewarded.
In many ways this conversation exemplifies the most uncomfortable political questions The Nightingale asks of us; what is the cost of establishing a ‘civilization’? Who are the people that are rewarded, and who is sacrificed in an imperial system? Early colonial Australia is a perfect period to explore these questions because the class system so fragile. In a remote military outpost, any captain could be vulnerable to a mutiny, and on the flip side the poor could expect little recourse to the law. In such an unstable environment, hierarchy can only be imposed through violence and brutality. So the ‘bad men’ that would be ostracised or killed by an egalitarian society, in the colonial society are rewarded with yet more power.
The initial premise of The Nightingale is not unfamiliar to anyone who enjoys ‘revenge fantasy’ fiction. Clare is an Irish convict in 1825 with a loving husband and baby son, who remains under the abusive control of the commanding officer of the military outpost, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), despite having completed her sentence. While Clare initially suffers the abuse silently to protect her family, her efforts are in vain when her husband tries to stand up to Hawkins.
Immediately after raping Clare and killing her family, Hawkins ventures to Launceston in a desperate attempt to receive a promotion. Left with nothing to lose, and only revenge to believe in, Clare pursues him through the Tasmanian wilderness, hoping to kill him.
It is here that the audience is exposed to the true historical context at the heart of the film. The rainforests on the way to Launceston are a warzone; from one of Australia’s most wilfully forgotten conflicts. The Black War, or Tasmanian War, raged across the entire island from the 1820s to 1832, and ended with a mass genocide of the indigenous population. While the audience enters the wilderness from Clare’s perspective, once inside we are trapped with the characters in the horror that ultimately ends in a war of extermination.
Once inside the forest, both the pursuer and the pursuant find themselves in a no-man’s land in which hierarchy, the law and morality hold no weight. It is a chase, but a slow one, in which both Clare and Hawkins find themselves in mortal danger regularly before they even meet each other. Both characters are white people unfamiliar with the land, and unable to survive on their own, so they both enlist the help of a Palawa guide. The landscape is beautiful, but haunting as well; a place where no one is safe and a culture is being slowly wiped out.
This effect is heightened by the director’s choice to have no soundtrack throughout the film, with the exception of the in-universe singing of the two main characters Clare, and her guide Billy. From the beginning of the movie, Clare’s singing ability is both her blessing and her curse. When at the barracks, she is briefly allowed to change out of her squalid working clothes into a fine blue dress, so she may sing for the regiment, signalling a gateway into a higher standard of living. But it is also what provokes the unwanted attention of Lieutenant Hawkins in the first place. Singing is how Clare and Billy come to eventually empathise with each other. While she sings of ‘The Nightingale’ while Billy performs the ritual of Mangana, the Black Cockatoo. Though they are separated by culture, status, language; it is through singing that the characters can identify their humanity and the commonality in their oppression.
Ultimately The Nightingale’s message is ambiguous on the efficacy of revenge as a means of righting systemic injustice, but its meditation on the roots and effects of such injustice make for a moving and captivating film.
In Australian cinemas, from today.