“I Spit on Your Grave” Meets “The Handmaid’s Tale” When “The Nightingale” Sings

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(Sneak Preview: Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) returns with her latest film, The Nightingale, followed by a Q&A with Kent and actors Baykali Ganambarr & Damon Herriman, on Wednesday, July 31, at 7:45PM at Lincoln Center’s Francesca Beale Theater.)

There are certain films in the past where the reviewer has been asked not to reveal a pivotal plot point. Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game from 1992 pops to mind. What happens? Well, let’s just say that Miramax and Harvey Weinstein had mixed feelings about their star Jaye Davison receiving a Best Supporting Actor nomination because . . . . I still don’t feel comfortable telling you.

Similarly, The Nightingale arrives with its press notes containing a rather lengthy request in red ink. Please, let there be no mention in your review of what occurs in the beginning of the heroine’s journey we are beseeched.

There are apparently “trigger acts” of violence towards everyone of every age who are either black or white. Homosexuals, Hispanics, and Inuits are spared because there are no characters of their ilk in the script except for one closeted gay man, and if he’s actually a closeted Sodomite, why waste a good spear? Right, God? However, if I recall correctly, a baby kangaroo doesn’t fare that well.

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The notes also caution in the aforementioned red ink that this feature “can . . . inspire reflection on the importance of empathy for our survival.” So I was expecting, as might you, a sort of horror film with humane underpinnings to spark thought.

Clearly, writer/director Jennifer Kent, best known for the prize-winning and rather unnerving The Babadook, does not tread anywhere Tarantino or Steve McQueen haven’t gone before when showcasing the white man’s barbaric side, except she does so with a well-honed female gaze. (That Kent apprenticed with Lars von Trier must have had some affect on her work, but I’ll leave that to film scholars. Now if only von Trier had apprenticed a bit with Kent . . . .)

Aisling Franciosi as “Clare” in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

All of which reminds me of The Guardian’s Elena Lazic’s take on Red Sparrow, which she used as a jumping off point to discuss the treatment of women in cinema: “Merely addressing [sexual violence] or presenting an act of rape without exploring its consequences on the victim should no longer be good enough. . . The fact that so few . . . films explore the impact and trauma, specifically the psychological consequences of such violations seems testament to a lack of engagement beyond shock value.”

Kent and her unyielding vision seems to be responding to Lazic with a film that explores today through yesterday’s British colonization of Australia. The year is 1825. There a 21-year-old Irish lass, Clare (Aisling Franciosi), having completed her 7-year sentence as an indentured servant for a petty crime, finds that her master, a Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), still refuses to release her. Though now married and a mother, she is still ordered to be a maid by day and to pour out drinks for Hawkins’ drunken troops, sing a song or two, and . . . well . . .much, much more by night. Her husband (Michael Sheasby) objects, then Hell breaks loose.

[RIGHT HERE IS WHERE I HAVE TO LEAVE YOU IN THE DARK.]

The following day, Hawkins, in order to receive a promotion to captain at a remote northern post, travels by foot with a small crew and an elderly Aboriginal guide across an unforgiving landscape.

Clare, having awoken from a nightmare and taken stock of her new unhappy circumstances, seeks revenge on Hawkins. She plans to track him and his buddies down and give them their comeuppance. To do so, she hires her own Aboriginal escort, Billy (a superb Baykali Ganambarr).

Baykali Ganambarr as “Billy” and Aisling Franciosi as “Clare” in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

Away they go, but a fond pairing they’re not. Clare calls Billy “boy” and, in the beginning, has a rifle constantly aimed at his back. Billy, in return, despises his new boss because he thinks she’s British, and the Brits have taken over his country and slaughtered his family.

In the end, will the pair, both decimated by the circumstances of their birth and their era, overcome their mistrust of each other a la Green Book and Driving Miss Daisy. Well, quite possibly they do.

Anyway, the end result is a superb feminist take on a historical action film. There’s fine acting, lush cinematography shot in Tasmania where Hannah Gadsby comes from, by the way, and an intelligent screenplay that pays off both emotionally and intellectually.

Clare and Billy’s journey takes them from victims to “victors,” although is a victim ever made whole? Here’s a film you can’t shake off, even if you desired to, which reminds me yet of another quote, one from Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger: “Ask a man what his greatest fear is about serving jail time, and he will almost inevitably say he fears being raped. What can we deduce from the fact that jail is to men what life is to so many women?” This is Clare’s tale.

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Director Jennifer Kent notes: “I wanted to tell a story about violence in particular, the fallout of violence from a feminine perspective. To do this I reached back into my own country’s history.”

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Brandon Judell has published in The Village Voice, The Advocate, and 50 or so other outlets. He is currently a lecturer at The City College of New York.

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