Jennifer Kent burst onto the film scene at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival with The Babadook, a psychological descent into the hell of grief and its effects on a desperate mother and her troubled child. The movie became an instant horror classic (and spawned all sorts of cheeky memes). And now, five years later, the Australian director is back with another devastating work about a grieving woman: The Nightingale.
It’s a carefully researched period piece set in 1825 about a young Irish convict, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), who has been sent to live out her sentence in remote Tasmania. She manages to marry and have a child, but she’s bound to serve an angry and sadistic young English officer named Hawkins (Sam Claflin), for whom her “duties” include working in the kitchen, singing for the soldiers, and being raped.
One night, things go from horrible to unconscionable, and Clare is left with a burning desire to exact revenge on Hawkins that takes her on a journey through the bush, with only a young Aboriginal man named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to be her guide. In 1825, the English think the Irish are subhuman — but both of them think any of “the blacks” are even more subhuman.
Whether you can come to see the humanity in someone you once thought was far from your equal — and whether empathy is even possible in the face of unthinkable cruelty — is the driving question behind The Nightingale. Though it’s a fictional story, it’s built on a strong foundation of historical research, and the ways it examines the effects of oppression, violence, and brutality on individual people’s lives make it feel strangely modern.
Though both The Nightingale and The Babadook are about bereaved women trying to fight their way back to life, Kent’s two films are very different. The Nightingale’s horror is real, rather than psychological, and it grapples brutally with the aftereffects of grief and anger at having your life forcibly taken from you by an occupying force who couldn’t care less about your humanity.
I caught up with Kent at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, the day before The Nightingale had its North American premiere. (It had its world premiere in Venice in September 2018.) I was especially interested to ask her about the historical setting of the film, how she pursued accuracy in the film’s smallest historical details (such as Aboriginal culture and several of the languages in the film), and why subtitles matter.
Our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity, follows.
It took me a few minutes to realize what part of the world we were in when the film started. The first lines you hear that aren’t in English are in Irish Gaelic, and I thought, Oh, are we in Ireland?
And how did that play out? Were you disoriented for a while?
I was! I knew the English had colonized and oppressed Ireland, so I was disoriented until Clare set out into the bush. Then I realized this wasn’t Ireland at all, but rather Australia.
Eventually, I realized that in a lot of ways, The Nightingale is a movie about the many ways being colonized can equal oppression, and the complicated ways that can play out — particularly when Clare encounters the Aboriginal character, Billy, for the first time and she has nothing but disdain for him, even though she’s been treated miserably by the English, who had the same disdain for her.
Yeah. I don’t particularly like period films, and I don’t tend to watch them. What I find off-putting about them is that they tend to romanticize the past. Clare is a product of her time, so she’s as racist as people would have been back then. And so is Billy, for that matter, and he has good reason to be.
It’s fear, whether that fear is warranted or not. For me, it’s really exciting to look at telling a story of two characters that on some level were able to transcend that fear, without sentimentalizing it. Or making it a love story, which would’ve been beyond gross.
So are there historical stories that parallel this one?
I studied this part of my history, the history of my country, for many years. The world of the film is very well researched; we had an Aboriginal adviser who helped us across the board.
Also I did my own research — there’s a lot out there. You only have to look for a very short time to find the atrocities that happened in this film. Nothing that happened in this film is fictional. The story itself is fictional, but the events are all factual, and worse. I mean, I couldn’t put some of the things in the film that happened, because people wouldn’t be able to bear it.
But I also wanted a world that was historically correct because I’m telling a story that’s very important to my people and that we need to face. Beyond that, I think it’s a universal story. It’s something that’s happening now, and happened then in America, and everywhere.
This is why the way you handle the languages in the film is so interesting. It’s in English, but there are two additional languages, Gaelic and an Aboriginal language, both of which have been suppressed by English speakers, as have many other native languages. Just integrating those into a film seems challenging.
It’s something I’m enormously proud of: As a team, we did the right thing. I think there were about 11 nations within Tasmania, which is a small island the size of Denmark. They’re all lost. All those languages were suppressed. The people were killed.
The current descendants, the Tasmanian Aboriginal people who live in Tasmania, have recreated a language called palawa kani that exists from the remnants of documents. It comes from all of the [lost] languages, and they speak it.
Putting it in this film helps it continue to grow and gain recognition. So it’s something we were adamant we wanted to use.
So that’s the language they’re speaking?
Yeah. It’s a modern language that didn’t exist in the time in its current incarnation. But it’s now a living, breathing thing. And I think anyone who’s studied languages for five minutes knows that a language gives identity. It offers something very profound to a culture.
And [palawa kani] has never been used in a film before. So I can’t be happier about that.
We obviously were very adamant about subtitling it. We wanted to make sure that the language was understood by people — because, shockingly, there are films that don’t subtitle indigenous language. That, to me, is just so wrong.
It makes the characters speaking the un-subtitled language out to be subhuman, like they’re animals.
As if we don’t need to hear what they think and feel.
So that took a lot of work. It’s a very complex situation, because Tasmanian Aboriginal people are mixed with the European invaders who came to Tasmania, and so their skin is often very light. For this period, we needed Aboriginal people who had darker skin. So we needed to cast people from different areas. They had to go in and learn the language.
Everything was done with the utmost respect. We followed [Aboriginal adviser] “Uncle” Jim Everett’s protocols.
Often, Australian films are made without even that consultation. You see it in the US, with Native American input in films. You think, “How do they get away with putting that crap onscreen? Obviously, no one was consulted.” So we just, it was really important that we went in and did that the right way.
There’s a scene in The Nightingale which an Aboriginal woman is abducted and brutalized by the English soldiers. It’s shocking to watch, not just because you feel for her but because her dialogue is subtitled, and you know exactly what she’s saying to them — that she’s pleading with them to let her go, while they don’t care or understand what she says, or even think of her as human.
Yeah. That’s the thing. We see a lot of those scenes in films, in Westerns, where it’s just your standard Native American woman and she’s gibbering away. You know that obviously she’s in some sort of pain, but you don’t connect with her. It was really important for me that we connected with all the women, and all the people who were suffering, especially the indigenous people, the Aboriginal people. Because then we have to take responsibility for how we feel about it onscreen.
And, you know, you can’t go and make a film and colonize everyone all over again through the making of that film. It’s very wrong.
It’s interesting because some of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is also in an indigenous language, Mixtec. Yalitza Aparicio, the lead actress, told me she had to learn the language for the film. It’s the language of her ancestors, but she said younger people aren’t learning it anymore, or mix it with Spanish. So she actually had to learn it from another one of the actresses. She said learning it for the film connected her to her own heritage.
It’s such a shame that Baykali Ganambarr [who plays Billy] can’t be here at Sundance — he’s touring with his dance group in another part of the world. He speaks so beautifully about that same thing, because it’s spiritual. It’s a commitment to take on, spiritually. Both Baykali and Magnolia, who played Lowanna, the woman who is abducted, saw it as a responsibility. So they went to the “old ones,” they call them, to tell the story the right way. I learned a lot from them.
Hearing that language in a film must mean a lot to the native speakers who watch it.
We’re doing a screening in Darwin, and we’ll do one in Tasmania for the locals. Those screenings are really important.
I’m proud of that. There was one point where I thought, “If I can’t get an adviser, I’m not going to tell this story.” And we just were lucky enough to get someone very experienced. He said, “I can’t not help you here. This story needs to be told.”
The Nightingale had its North American premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2019. It is slated for release by IFC Films in the summer.