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Extremity as empathy in The Nightingale

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In her follow up to The Babadook, director Jennifer Kent never flinches

Clare stares fearful into camera, covered in blood
Aisling Franciosi as Clare in The Nightingale
Courtesy of IFC Films

[Ed. note: this piece contains descriptions of sexual assault that may be troubling to some readers.]

The Nightingale, the second film from Australian director Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), is not an easy watch. Where other movies would cut away from acts of violence, the drama maintains relentless focus, particularly in its depictions of rape. Set in 1825 Australia, the film stars Aisling Franciosi as Clare, a young Irish convict and new mother waiting for her supervisor Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) to recommend her for release. Over the course of months the British officer serially rapes her. She becomes inured to the state of affairs through repeated trauma. In her world it’s something to be weathered, not resisted.

The blunt, repetitive viciousness of Clare’s experiences are echoed in the wider narrative, which follows the young women, and a young Aboriginal tracker, as they seek vengeance against Hawkins. Burning cottages, settlers murdered in their beds, Aboriginal people ripped from their homes and shot; filmed with clarity and stillness, The Nightingale’s world is one of ambient hostility. Life is cheap and fragile, genuine friendship as precious as it is impossible to sustain. So much of Kent’s movie is concerned with the depth of human need for connection, communicated in lingering close-ups of its two leads staring at one another. In their quiet, doomed longing for friendship and comfort in one another the film locates an emotional core much more moving than its sometimes awkward discourse on colonialist violence.

The movie’s volume of sexual violence has proven difficult for audiences; there are four rape scenes in the 142-minute film, and more offscreen. As The Nightingale establishes, rape is commonplace in the Australia of 1825, then a brutally hierarchical colony of the British empire. Clare, sentenced to serve as a kitchen maid on a regimental base where her husband works as a smith, is raped by Hawkins near the start of the film, then gang-raped by Hawkins and his sergeant, Ruse (Damon Herriman), after her husband embarrasses Hawkins in front of a superior officer. In the first scene Clare focuses on her surroundings during the assault in a clear depiction of dissociation. A wall. A fireplace. Her own hand flexing aimlessly. It’s rape as a force which displaces the victim from their own body.

Clare serves a group of British soldiers at a candlelit table in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale Matt Nettheim/IFC Films

The latter sequence deals with rape as a more directly punitive social tool. Hawkins initiates the gang rape to again reinforce his power over Clare and her family after they upset the social order by humiliating him. This is the primary purpose of sexual violence: the exertion of control and the shoring up of existing hierarchies. During this scene Clare begs hysterically for the lives of her husband and daughter while the British soldiers take turns raping her. Before the situation deteriorates she even attempts to conceal that Hawkins has been raping her, knowing that to reveal it would invite at best the destruction of her marriage and at worst the murder of herself and her family. The only survivable option for victims without agency is quiet participation.

Hawkins’ and Ruse’s motivations, too, are thoroughly explored. Where the typical cinematic rapist — from The Shawshank Redemption’s Bogs Diamond to Jenny’s father in Forrest Gump to Mad Max: Fury Road’s Immortan Joe — is left a predatory blank, Kent depicts Hawkins’ vicious insecurity and inferiority complex as the primary drivers behind his behavior. Repeatedly passed over for promotion and looked down upon by officers from loftier social backgrounds, Hawkins vents his frustrations on those beneath him. Sergeant Ruse in turn redirects the indignities Hawkins forces upon him toward those with no power to resist him. He also shares in Hawkins’ conquests and proposes joint rape as a means of bonding his commanding officer to him. In both men’s cases feelings of entitlement and disenfranchisement are centered above desire for sex.

In its relentless depictions of rape’s human victims and perpetrators, The Nightingale attains a brutal realism few other violent period dramas so much as aspire to. Rape is an act done not by monstrous outliers from society but by people — primarily men — whose conformity with the culture around them gives them power over others and protection from the consequences of their actions. It’s a kind of pastime, almost. When Ruse abducts the Aborigine woman Lowanna (Magnolia Maymuru) to rape in camp after the day’s march, his argument with Hawkins about whether or not to keep her is sickeningly similar to a child’s attempt to sway a parent into buying them candy. Lowanna herself is shown, much as Clare did, to dissociate during her assault, praying in her native language as men who can’t even speak to her use her body as a distraction from the rigors of travel. Trauma as a universal language.

The Nightingale spends more time on the emotional and physical experience of trauma than it does on rape as an immediate event. Clare’s post-traumatic stress dreams and flat, dead affect in the face of further violence plant the audience firmly in the experience of having been raped. This refusal to flinch, not just from the act itself, but from the world and people which its institutionalization shape lays bare the emotional cost of rape’s widespread use as a tool of control. What it takes from its victims isn’t just sexual agency but the ability to connect to others, to experience trust, to feel safe. What rape takes from you is your home.

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