A Bird’s Revenge

The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent, Australia, 2018)

Review by Khalid Ali, film and media correspondent

Recently the presence of women film-makers is becoming more prominent and influential in international film circuits. The Sundance Film Festival London 2019 (https://spotlight.picturehouses.com/sundance-film-festival-2019-london/sundance-film-festival-19-london-full-programme/) continues the trend of showcasing the best of world cinema made by talented women with compelling stories to tell. After her widely acclaimed first film The Babadook (Australia, 2014), Jennifer Kent, Australian film maker, returns with the gut-wrenching revenge drama The Nightingale. Reflecting on the atrocities committed by the British army in Tasmania in 1825, Kent tells the story of ‘Clare’ (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish mother toiling hard in the army regimens to earn her ‘freedom papers’. Possessing a heavenly voice, she is ‘The Nightingale’ of the camp, entertaining drunken soldiers, and tolerating their sexual advances. In a drunken rage, the British Captain Hawkins (Sam Claflin) rapes Clare, and kills her husband and baby. Accompanied by an Aboriginal slave Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) Clare follows Captain Hawkins and his barbaric soldiers in the Tasmanian wilderness. Clare and Billy are armed by anger and hatred from years of miserable slavery. However they must first confront hostile nature and British army violence before they reach Captain Hawkins and execute their revenge.

The Nightingale Film Trailer

The film is a timely reminder of a current global epidemic of physical violence and sexual harassment against women. The UNICEF organization reports highly alarming figures: “Approximately 15 million adolescent girls (aged 15 to 19) worldwide have experienced forced sex (forced sexual intercourse or other sexual acts) at some point in their life”.[1] While the film is set in 1825, it still tells a tragic story experienced by millions of women in this day and age. The director raises the pertinent question of what drives and perpetuates the cycle of male-dominated violence; Clare asks Captain Hawkins the reasons why he did what he did to her: “Did your mother not love you?!”.

Clare and Billy are fully aware that their revenge will not bring closure and peace to their wounded bodies and souls, but their path has already been determined by an inescapable fate. Here the film references the tragic narratives of Greek myths; Clare, a beautiful young woman with an angelic voice seeking revenge after being raped is another ‘Philomela’, the Princess of Athens. Philomela was raped by her sister’s husband, ‘King Tereus’. Philomela takes revenge on Tereus by killing his son and serving his son’s flesh as a meal for Tereus to eat. To escape Tereus’ wrath, Philomela transforms into a bird, a Nightingale, and flies away. In modern culture, the singing of Nightingale birds is interpreted as a sorrowful lamentation of Philomela’s pain and loss. Clare confronts Hawkins in his barracks by singing; she uses her voice as a weapon of telling the truth and preaching to army officers to listen to her story and grant her justice. Billy also uses song as a male Nightingale crying out loud as a native Aboriginal: “This is my land, this is my home”.

According to a recent report from the Australian Human Rights Commission, sexual harassment is still a common offence against Australian men and women who identify themselves as Aboriginal.[2] Gender and race inequalities, and gender-based violence, are prevalent in Australia today; the stories of those affected must be heard and acted upon. Unfortunately a Nightingale’s song from 1825 has its echoes in 2019.

[1] UNICEF. (2017). A Familiar Face: Violence in the Lives of Children and Adolescents, p. 73, 82.

[2] Australian Human Rights Commission. (2018). Everyone’s Business: Fourth National Survey on Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces, p.28.

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