'If people find certain scenes, whether it’s sexual violence or the violence in general, shocking, that’s good because it is shocking.'

By Nick Romano
July 11, 2019 at 03:31 PM EDT
Matt Nettheim/IFC Films
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All eyes were on Jennifer Kent as she set out to make her next film after 2014’s The Babadook, but perhaps no one was really prepared for what she put to screen.

The unveiling of The Nightingale, far from the horrors of the director’s modern genre classic, proved to be a seesawing affair. One critic at the Venice Film Festival hurled sexist remarks at the 50-year-old Australian filmmaker as the end-credits rolled, but the jury awarded Kent its special jury prize. At later screenings in and out of festivals, several audience members reportedly walked out of theaters over the intense, graphic nature of the story, while others praised Kent’s approach and craftsmanship.

In the film, also written by Kent, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a 21-year-old Irish convict, serves what has turned into a seven-year sentence in a penal colony in 1825 Tasmania that was often referred to as “Hell on earth.” There, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), routinely torments and rapes her, building towards an even more traumatic event that sends this woman on a path of vengeance into the dense wilderness with Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal tracker, as her guide. Though, The Nightingale does not fall into the cliched trappings of previous rape revenge storylines as it unpacks the lifecycle of violence and racism that birthed what Kent refers to as “white Australia.”

“Violence is shocking,” Kent tells EW in reflection of the story she set out to write and the polarizing audience response. “It’s heartbreaking, it rips peoples’ lives apart, it causes great scars in people that often can never be removed, that have to be a part of the new experience, and that’s what I wanted to put on screen. If people find certain scenes, whether it’s a sexual violence or the violence in general, shocking, that’s good because it is shocking.”

Kent describes the responses to The Nightingale thus far as “sometimes controversial, sometimes difficult, sometimes hurtful.”

“I think what’s been one of the most painful things is having people misunderstand my motivation for making it, maybe because they don’t understand the level of research that went into making the film, to make sure it’s historically accurate, psychologically accurate,” she wonders. “That’s been quite a painful process for me in the last few months.”

Matt Nettheim/IFC Films

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.”

Matt Nettheim/IFC Films

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.”

In addition to the task of filming on location in Tasmania, especially the “impenetrable” stretches of land, Kent strived for authenticity by employing language experts (both Aboriginal and Irish), historical military experts, and an Aboriginal consultant (associate producer Jim Everett). For the cast and crew, a clinical psychologist was on hand “throughout the development of the script in regards to the sexual violence,” Kent recalls. “She was also on set so that whenever we were feeling very shaken and rattled she was there to legitimize what we were doing.”

Kent remembers the first public screenings of the film at Venice, which she notes also had “certain levels of controversy.” It’s where she had “the most profound experience,” one that she returns to in memory as more audiences experience The Nightingale.

“I remember turning around to see my dear friend and the Tasmanian Aboriginal elder who worked on the film, Uncle Jim Everett,” she begins. “It was his first screening of the finished film. He looked very grave, and I was really worried, even though he’s [been] closely linked to the process all along [he’s credited as an Aboriginal consultant and associate producer] and had seen the previous screenings that were unfinished. I went to him later and I said, ‘Are you okay?’ He was upset because he was so profoundly moved. He could hardly speak and he was close to tears. He shared with me later how important the film was to him and to his history and his people and his experience. That, for me, was when I knew that I had done my job because his story, the story of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people, has never been told in a film this way. It’s worth a thousand good reviews to see his response and to know that, albeit it’s a very tough film, it was done in the right way and with his consultation.”

The Nightingale opens in theaters on Aug. 2.

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