The Sound of Violence

Still from Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 136 minutes. Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) and Clare (Aisling Franciosi). Photo: IFC Films.

IN THE 1820s, British colonizers nearly exterminated Tasmania’s Aboriginal population during the Black War, a genocidal conflict still unacknowledged by many Australians. That any film set during this period would feature scenes of carnage and horror should surprise no one. Yet The Nightingale, Jennifer Kent’s nuanced follow-up to The Babadook (2014), has ignited controversy regarding the violence audiences are asked to endure. (One aggrieved journalist lashed out in a misogynist attack, calling the director a “whore,” at last year’s Venice Film Festival.) But even more striking is how little the responses, both positive and negative, have expanded beyond acknowledging the sheer number of rapes and murders in the film to discuss how Kent depicts and contextualizes them—not just visually but, with more intensity, through sound.

In the film’s opening scenes, twenty-one-year-old Irish convict and new mother Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is treated like a musical instrument by the sadistic Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), to whom she has been forcibly enslaved despite having already earned her release papers. He parades her before the troops to sing “a good old British love song for all us homesick lads,” and later requests a private serenade, as he probably does nightly, along with more lecherous demands. But Hawkins can only fool himself for so long that the soundscape of empire that haunts Australia is defined by tender folk songs and not by its victims’ screams: screams audiences cannot ignore by closing their ears when Hawkins and his men murder Clare’s baby and husband, and gang-rape her; screams an Aboriginal woman lets out as these men assault her; screams that reverberate in Clare’s dreams as she hunts the soldiers through the Tasmanian bush; screams that push the body to its limits, beyond words and subjectivity, to that horrifying metaphysical point Gilles Deleuze has described as “the entire body trying to escape, to flow out of itself.”

Still from Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 136 minutes. Clare (Aisling Franciosi). Photo: IFC Films.

The terror this cacophony induces exceeds any caused by the film’s graphic representation of violence. In fact, compared to other cinema focused on rape and revenge, The Nightingale demonstrates considerable restraint throughout its 136 minutes, as Kent refuses to provide voyeuristic titillation or any form of catharsis through violence. During the rapes, the camera focuses closely on the actors’ faces, with Franciosi conveying more emotion in her eyes alone than others have done in entire bodily performances. These tight shots are made more claustrophobic by the film’s near-square Academy ratio. The multiple murders of Aboriginal Australians and settlers are depicted without gore, possessing instead a cold matter-of-factness. What remains constant—and extreme—is the oppressive soundtrack.

Beyond their sober realism, these scenes’ effectiveness results from the very ubiquity for which they have been criticized. Whereas a single rape or murder risks being fetishized as exceptional or turned into a mere plot point, Kent’s catalogue of atrocities expresses a world structured by pernicious power relations that make nearly every character a victim or a perpetrator, and often both. After losing her family, Clare reluctantly employs Billy (Baykali Ganambarr, making his acting debut), a young Aboriginal man, as her guide through the dense forest, abusing him with the same racism perpetuated by the British soldiers. Billy, in turn, assumes she is English and matches her vitriol for her presumed involvement in the massacre of his people—crimes that Kent takes exacting care to address without saccharine platitudes or excessive, pathos-ridden shots of dead bodies. As they gradually empathize with each other’s tragedies, their reciprocal hostility eventually dissipates, but never in a way that equalizes their experiences, has one character prop up the other, or suggests that their relationship will outlast the partnership they’ve formed in pursuit of retribution against their shared colonizer. Parallel to the pair’s journey, which takes them past burning homesteads and lynched Aborigines, Hawkins heads north to Launceston to petition for a sergeant position for which his superior refuses to recommend him. Each scene finds his crew’s hierarchy shifting, as its members make mistakes that he sometimes punishes by death. The cruelty creates a fabric and rhythm of violence that tests viewers’ endurance, and the experience of watching it in the theater conveys an impression of life in 1820s Tasmania, as well as life under colonialism and its corollary systems today.

Still from Jennifer Kent's The Nightingale, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 136 minutes. Billy (Baykali Ganambarr). Photo: IFC Films.

But Kent’s strongest critique of violence—retributive or otherwise—emerges at the moment she abandons her graphic restraint. In an all too rare cinematic move, she uses the imagery of extreme violence to criticize those very acts, and to meditate on the effects of trauma, by establishing a visual symmetry between the event that pushes Clare toward revenge and her consummation of that desire. As Clare straddles the teenage boy who killed her baby and, screaming, repeatedly drives a knife into his chest, Kent pulls the camera away from their faces and symbolically makes visible the physical violence concealed during the earlier rape. The parallels between the two acts, however, are not obvious enough to stop those conditioned to celebrate such a moment as cathartic, despite how it plagues Clare afterward. This subtlety makes Kent’s interrogation of audiences’ emotional responses and ethics all the more successful.

Had this barrage of trauma been presented without any hope that another way of life were possible, The Nightingale might have been unwatchable. But embedded throughout the film are the literal sounds of alternative ways of thinking and being that suggest difference need not compel destruction. Billy’s tolerance of Clare, for example, begins when she asserts her hatred for the British but deepens into respect when he hears her speak and sing in Gaelic. Clare’s gratitude toward Billy is, in part, signaled by her witnessing of the songs and rituals he performs in his Aboriginal language. The film’s final scene positions the two on opposite sides of the frame as they once again sing in their mother tongues, establishing a bond, however loose and contingent, between them.

The Nightingale was released on August 2 in the United States and will open in Australia on August 29.