Clare : “I’m not your nightingale, your little bird, your dove. I’m not your anything. I belong to me and no one else!”
I warn you, I’m a big fan of “The Nightingale” (2018) and this write up comes from my fervor for writer/director Jennifer Kent who’d previously directed one of my favorite films, “The Babadook” (2014). Her follow-up is not for everyone. It’s a brutal film with a visceral impact. Why recommend it? It’s a mature work by an incredibly talented artist. I also know that in order for us to understand her subject matter, she needs you to see and experience some of the darkness, yet her parting message is that we need love and empathy and kindness in the worst of times.
The story takes place in 1825 in the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), on the eve of the Black War, a period of hostility between British colonists and Aboriginal Australians which resulted in the extermination of a great part of the Indigenous population of the island.
Clare Carrol (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict who has finished her sentence but is at the mercy of sadistic British Lieutenant Hawkins (a mesmerizing Sam Claflin) until he gives her a letter of release. “I decide when you leave and when you stay,” he tells her. In the meantime, she continues working as a servant and singing songs to him and officers on command. She’s married and has recently given birth to a daughter and wants to be set free. Hawkins has his own needs. He himself wants to get out of the primitive colonial force detachment. An officer who is visiting to evaluate him for promotion witnesses the way he treats Clare and her husband and refuses to give his support; says he can go to the town of Launceston to argue further his situation. On his way out of town with a sergeant and an ensign, he stops at Clare’s hut, and they commit an unspeakable atrocity, leaving Clare unconscious and alone.
When she wakes, she is possessed with the need to avenge what they’ve done and sets out to follow Hawkins and his men. The caveat is that she needs to traverse the inhospitable bush, and she cannot do it alone. Her brother-in-law finds her Billy, an aboriginal tracker. They start their dangerous journey into a veritable “Heart of Darkness.”
At first Clare is cruel and prejudiced towards Billy, but needs his guidance. “I’m showing you the way. You protect yourself,” he tells her. He is suspicious of her real intentions for following the British soldiers and resents that she’s from England. “I’m Irish,” she protests. Both of them had been transported from their homes to do hard labor on this island. They both have undergone major family losses and violence at the hands of the colonizers. They find mutual understanding in their quest for retribution for the hell they’ve endured. They also start to develop empathy for one another.
Kent has such a strong vision. She knows how to rattle our psyche. From the start she creates a claustrophobic feeling with a boxier aspect ratio of the frame. When the violence is inflicted on Clare, she makes us see it through her eyes or through a tight close up of her face. Once the travails start through the dense forests, the sense of entrapment continues with the trees and the foliage containing the characters. Once in a while she will emphasize this, by having the camera follow the character’s gaze upon the skies and the magnitude of what surrounds them.
Naturally, there’s a lot of bird imagery. Birds fly through the forest and we hear their sounds. Music is a form of rebellion and freedom for both Clare and Billy, and they both get to sing out. At some point when Clare has lost her way, it is an exotic bird who shows her a path. “I’m a bird flying high over the mountains,” declares Billy.
Like she did in “The Babadook,” Kent has the main character be haunted by dreams that start to slowly evolve into Gothic nightmares. At first it’s a vision of her husband and her dancing. Eventually animal cries at night sound like a baby. Her imagination starts intensifying as does her rage. And there’s a reckoning. It’s unflinching.
Kent is dealing with misogyny, racism and colonialism, and the mix is a potent brew. She is unrelenting. I have mentioned to you before that I can sit through tough material if it’s done with artistry. This is a director working at the top of her game.
Hawkins : “That’s just the way, isn’t it? You don’t want trouble but sometimes trouble wants you.”
Available to stream on Hulu and to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, Apple TV+, Microsoft and iTunes
Written and Directed by Jennifer Kent
Starring Aisling Franciosi, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman, Charlie Jampijinpa Brown, Harry Greenwood, Claire Jones, Michael Sheasby
Writer and Director Jennifer Kent on Bringing “The Nightingale” to the Screen
For Kent, it wasn’t a case of wanting to make this film. It was more a case of needing to make it. “I just had a really strong feeling that if I didn’t make “Nightingale” now, I never would,” she says. “It was such a difficult film to make. Not so much to finance. Things flowed reasonably well, but given the nature of the story and the shoot itself, I knew it had to be next.” Life changed for Kent after “The Babadook,” her debut feature about a single mother dealing with the death of her husband and the actual monster tormenting her son. With a new management team, she felt supported in her desire to develop her own work — “to tell stories that I connect with on a deeper level,” as she says. Development on ‘The Nightingale’ ran parallel to another of Kent’s works-in-progress, one she’s now actively seeking to finance as her third feature film: “Alice + Freda Forever,” an adaptation of the non-fiction book of the same name. But a series of circumstances led her to “The Nightingale” first. “I had a couple of personal losses — people who died in my family — and I was very struck by loss and grief, and also quite disturbed by the level of violence I was seeing in the world, in media, in films, TV, on the news,” she explains. “It was breaking my heart and I wanted to talk about it in a way that was meaningful to me.” When writing, Kent finds it’s better to sit still and “feel” what story wants to come up, and so she very quickly gravitated towards the time of colonial invasion of her own country — “the birth of white Australia,” she says. It’s an era that not only sets up the modern plight of Aboriginal people in the country, but serves in stark contrast to modern cinema and television, which, Kent sees, “fetishizes violence” and “makes it cool or stylish.”
“I’ve often had a response [to the film] like, ‘That’s stylized violence. This is real violence.’ Well, to me, it all offers up something watching it,” Kent says. “It either makes violence okay or it gives it to us honestly, and I wanted to give it to the audience honestly. I understand that’s too much for people to bear, but it’s how I feel about violence and it’s also how I feel about the importance of love in the midst of dark times. We need to focus on what we’re doing to ourselves and to each other, and that’s a tough pill to swallow, but sometimes desperate times require strong measures.” It’s a relevant topic, not just for an Australian audience. While ruminating on the disenfranchisement of Aboriginals in her country, Kent considers the rise of racism and neo-Nazis in America, the idea that a nation hasn’t reconciled with the horrors committed in the past in its name and the repetition of history. She explains, “I feel there’s not a lot to be gained by turning away from suffering, either our own, which is what ‘The Babadook’ is about, or other peoples’, which is what ‘The Nightingale’ is about. As hard as it is, we need to look right into the eyes of suffering of other people, and the more that we can do that with courage, we can develop our empathy or compassion, our kindness for ourselves and for others. I think they help us evolve as humans and, without them, we’re lost and history shows us that.” (ew.com)
Actor Aisling Franciosi on Preparing for the Role of Clare
“I actually talked about it with a psychologist, Dr. Elaine, who said, “It’s really important that Clare never lets herself fully feel her emotions because if she were to do that in real life, she would just crumble. She would just probably fall down and want to die.” As part of my research for the role, I also spent time with new mothers and their babies, partly so I would be used to having one on my hip all the time. [laughs] I also wanted to talk to mothers, and one of the things I said to them was, “I know this is a horrible thing to think about, but if someone did something to your child, what would you so?” And without fail, every single one of them was like, “I’d kill them,” and they said it with such intensity. But you’re right about that line. It wasn’t just about her family and her baby. Clare’s also speaking about her future, her sense of self, and as you say, her sexuality as well. For me, the saddest loss is this future that she had endured so much to protect, and now, not only is it taken away from her, but that endurance was for nothing. Regarding the distinction that we make between sexual violence and violence itself, it’s important that we emphasize the fact that rape is violence. There is a reason why rape and war go hand in hand. It is an extremely powerful, dehumanizing, destructive weapon that has really long-lasting effects. You are left with grief and trauma that still must be dealt with long after the violence has occurred. I’m not saying, of course, that death isn’t horrific as well, but I feel like violent rape is an attempt to destroy someone without actually destroying them in a physical sense. You are destroying their sense of self without killing them. So yes, that line has so many layers to it.” (rogerebert.com)
About Director of Photography Radek Ładczuk
Radek Ładczuk is a cinematographer and member of the Polish and European Film Academy as well as the Polish Society of Cinematographers (PSC). He has completed a Masters Degree in Cultural Studies at the Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań as well as graduating from the Cinematography Stream at the Lodz Film School, Poland. Currently lives in Warsaw; working both in Poland and overseas. Radek first became interested in film during his studies in Poznań, when together with Sebastian Buttny he began to create amateur film projects. Radek dedicated his Master’s Thesis: “Visualisations of Ideology”, to the creativity of great Polish Cinematographer, Jerzy Wójcik. The Awards and commendations that he received for his amateur work encouraged him to try out for the Lodz Film School. Studying Cinematography was for Radek a time of intense creative work in a friend-filled environment. He completed over twenty short form projects in collaboration with students form the Directing Stream. Such films as: “Luksus,” “The Journalist” and “For a Miracle” won many awards at various prestigious film festivals. In 2003 an add which he shot POP Idea, won a prize at the Student Advertising Film Festival by Kodak. A year later at the same festival Ładczuk was awarded for the film’s cinematography. In 2005, together with his film school colleagues, Ładczuk created a feature length film: “Ode to Joy,” he was cinematographer for a seaside novella directed by Maciej Migas, which received a Special Prize of the Jury at the 30th Feature Film Festival in Gdynia, Poland. In the meantime he also collaborated with the Wajda School of Film, and shooting footage for documentary projects, amongst which was the Award winning film: “Antiques and The Cure”, directed by Maciej Cuske. In 2006, “Melodrama” directed by Filip Marczewski with cinematography by Ładczuk was nominated by the American Film Academy, for a student Oskar for Foreign Short Film.
In 2011 Radek was awarded the Andrzej Munk Prize for a cinematography debut for the film: “Suicide Room” directed by Jan Komasa. The same film also received multiple prestigious awards at 19th International Camerimage Film Festival in Bydgoszcz, including Best Cinematography Debut and Best Cinematography for a Polish Film. Radek was also awarded the prize of the Golden Duck, decided by the readers of FILM magazine. The World Premiere of “Suicide Room” took place at the Berlin Film Festival, where the film opened the Panorama Section. A national cinema release in Poland secured the film an audience of over 800 000.Ładczuk’s next cinematic success was the film “You Are God,” telling the story of a kult hip-hop group – Paktofonika. The film received an audience of over one and a half million during it’s Polish Cinema release. “For You Are God” Radek was nominated for the PSC Prize (Polish Society Of Cinematographers) as well as the Eagle Prize for Best Cinematography awarded by the Polish Film Academy. In 2012 Radek Ładczuk began his work on international film projects. At the beginning of the year he was the DOP for an Israeli production “Princess” directed by Tali Shalom Ezer, afterwards he shot a Palestinian short film, “Izriqaq” directed by Ramy Mari as well as an Australian feature film; a thriller titled “The Babadook” directed by Jennifer Kent. “The Babadook” was officially selected for the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in Park City… Apart from Films, Radek also works as a cinematographer for visual art installations, advertisements and music videos. (radekladczuk.com) A few’ of Radek’s other works include “Watching the Moon at Night” (2015), “Aktorka” (2015), “Inflame” (2017), “My Days of Mercy” (2017), “Love Express. The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk” (2018), “The Day of Chocolate” (2018), “The Nightingale” (2018), “The Hater” (2020), “Kubrick by Kubrick” (2020) and most recently the film “The Peasants.”
About Writer and Director Jennifer Kent
Jennifer Kent was born in Brisbane, Australia. She graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) and has worked extensively in theatre, film and TV as an actor. In 2002, Jennifer undertook a directing apprenticeship on “Dogville,” directed by Lars von Trier. Jennifer’s award-winning short film “Monster” Screened at over 50 international festivals including Telluride Film Festival and Aspen Shortsfest where it won the Audience Award and The Ellen Award for distinctive achievement. In 2010, Jennifer completed the script program at the Binger Filmlab in Amsterdam, where she developed her feature film “The Babadook.” “The Babadook” screened at Sundance Film Festival in January 2014 to critical and audience acclaim, and has won over 50 international and domestic awards, including the Australian Director’s Guild award for Best Director, the Australian Academy Award (AACTA) for Best Direction, Best Screenplay and Best Film, and the New York Critics Circle Awards for Best First Feature. Her second feature “The Nightingale” premiered at the Venice Film Festival where it won the prestigious Special Jury Prize as well as the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Newcomer (Baykali Ganambarr.)…Her third feature as writer/director is “Alice and Freda Forever”…She is also writing and will direct “Tiptree,” a limited series for TV based on the extraordinary life and work of female science fiction writer Alice B Sheldon. (collab.sundance.org)