Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to The Babadook is every bit as horrific, but shifts its focus to Tasmanian history, and the legacy of genocide in Tasmania. In fact, this is one of the few Australian films I’ve seen that frankly depicts the treatment of First Nations by Europeans as genocide, often recalling 12 Years a Slave in its brutality and depravity. The story revolves around two characters who are both on the run from the English colonists – Clare, an Irish convict played by Aisling Franciosi, and Billy, an indigenous tracker, played by Baykali Ganambarr. Early in the film, Clare suffers a series of atrocities at the hands of Hawkins, an English soldier played by Sam Clafin. After having spent months raping Clare, Hawkins murders her husband and her baby and leaves her for dead, before heading to Launceston to make a case for his promotion. Since he has to arrive in Launceston before news of the crime reaches authorities, he hires his own tracker to help him make his way up the middle of the island, rather than taking the coastal route. Meanwhile, Billy, who lives in a neighbouring camp, agrees to help Clare track down Hawkins, so she can enact her revenge, embarking him on a nightmarish journey through the final stages of the Tasmanian genocide, where he sees some of the last pockets of his people being destroyed before him.
As that might suggest, The Nightingale is venal, ugly, drab, brutal, grim and, above all, violent. When I saw it at the Sydney Film Festival, there were multiple walkouts, many of them accompanied with reproachful comments thrown back at the screen about the gratuitous violence and horror of it all. Yet as Kent pointed out in her address after the film, what we’re watching is already a watered-down version of this period, since if she had “put down what happened in Tasmania in 1825, the audience wouldn’t be able to bear it.” This is not a film, then, for people who liked the reassuring message of The Secret River – at least in its novel form – that perpetrators of genocide can and should be humanised as victims in their own right. Instead, The Nightingale corrects Grenville’s novel in the same way as the theatrical version of The Secret River. In both cases, Grenville’s original gesture of presenting the path to genocide through the lens of sentimental humanism is imploded by the intrusion of indigenous voices and indigenous perspectives upon the situations she narrates.
Specifically, whereas Grenville tries to understand genocide through a humanist lens, The Nightingale is prescient that humanity, as understood by humanism, is already skewed towards whiteness and colonialism. For that reason, The Nightingale often reminded me of the project of Afrofuturism, which seeks to reject assimilation of blackness into white ideals of humanity, and instead envisages a post-humanist future. Throughout The Nightingale, there is also a persistent sense that futurity can’t exist for indigenous people if too much is conceded to white efforts to “recognise” their humanity, or white efforts to assimilate them to a “common” form of justice. Time and again, Kent depicts genocide as being committed by figures of justice, just as the murder, infanticide and rape that is visited upon Clare is framed by Hawkins as a form of colonially-mandated corporal punishment. This prescience that indigenous people are excluded from humanist futurity is only enhanced by the eerie sense that, statistically speaking, Billy is likely to be a victim of the genocide taking place around him. As the film proceeds, Billy is gradually overwhelmed by this sense of finitude, especially in one horrific scene in which he comes across a group of men, who may well be his last relatives, with their white captors, who shoot and behead them casually on the spot.
Rather than try to envisage a white-mandated future for Tasmanian First Nations, Kent thus turned the film itself into an exercise in alternative future-building. At the Sydney Film Festival, Kent made two things very clear about her time in Tasmania – first, that small pockets of First Nations people do survive, and, second, that she realized from the outset that the film could only exist in collaboration with their knowledge, history and insights. An amalgamation of representatives from the eleven First Nations of the film helped craft the script, resulting in the first Australian screenplay that includes significant portions of Palawa. At the same time, the very process of screenwriting helped elders to recover and expand the lexicon of Palawa, turning the film into a catalyst for language and nation building in turn. This composite authorship of The Nightingale, and the different trajectories in its production, means that it eschews any easy gesture of solidarity between indigenous people and white people, especially when they refer to the prospect of a sustainable future.
Most obviously, the relationship between Billy and Clare only emerges in a gradual, tentative and provisional way. From the outset, Billy makes it clear to Clare that he is her tracker, rather than her protector, as evinced in a terrific scene in which he quickly flees the path when a sadistic colonial underling tries to dismount her from her horse and rape her. Rather than conform to either the role of the noble savage or the ignoble savage, Billy matter-of-factly points out that the colonist would have shot him on sight, and that he isn’t prepared to take that kind of risk simply to get her to Launceston. Nevertheless, the two start to develop a rapport, but it emerges gradually, out of a shared hatred of the English, and a shared horror of colonialism, rather than through the convenient discovery of a common humanity. Since they have both had their language prohibited by English settlers, they bond through song before they bond through speech – not necessarily by teaching each other songs, but by just witnessing each other singing to themselves, and realising that they both use song to express the catharsis of finally being able to use their own language.
While The Nightingale has been marketed and criticized as an exercise in Tasmanian Gothic, then, it often plays more like a critique and deconstruction of Tasmanian Gothic. For the most part, Kent refrains from Tasmanian Gothic tropes, such as supernatural motifs, uncanny connections and, above all, the sublime spectacle of the Tasmanian landscape. In particular, the square frame ratio works against a panoptic European gaze and aesthetic command of the landscape, especially since Kent opts for the briefest and most cursory of establishing shots to anchor us as we move up through the centre of the island. Indeed, the only genuinely expansive vista occurs when Hawkins’ tracker leads him off the track, taking him to the top of an isolated mountain and parodically proclaiming that this can be his throne and domain, since he can see for miles and miles in all directions. Only here does Kent allow for an expansive sense of landscape, and only as a Tasmanian landscape “experience” that this tracker has mockingly deployed to ensare and disorient his captors, parodically offering them precisely the command of sight that Kent’s own camera eschews.
Hawkins’ response is to immediately kill his tracker, despite the fact that he is the only person who can possibly lead them back to Launceston. Luckily for Hawkins, Clare and Billy show up shortly after, but the violence of his response to his own tracker speaks to the violence of the way in which the visual field of Tasmania has been programmatically cleared of indigenous culture since the earliest colonial paintings. Through that violence, Kent reminds us that Tasmanian Gothic is often just the effort to both process and repress this indigenous presence, and the genocide that nearly decimated it, which is perhaps why The Nightingale feels like a critique of Tasmanian Gothic more than an instance of it. By presenting the horror of genocide so directly, and the presence of indigenous people so frankly, Kent precludes the Gothic mode that is often used to repress them. This depiction of Tasmanian atrocity without the more familiar lens of Tasmanian Gothic may be why so many critics were hostile to the film and to its franker form of realism. Kent’s style is very different, for example, from the more stylised Van Dieman’s Land, released in 2009, despite the fact that the two films both situate a similar kind of story in the Tasmanian hinterland.
Yet while Kent may depict genocide frankly, she also depicts the presence of indigenous culture frankly, rather than presenting it as doomed to failure, or Gothically determined to die out. Unlike in Van Dieman’s Land, there is no sublime sense of the “wilderness” here, or any illusion that any part of Tasmania was ever pre-colonial. As Billy and Clare move up through the hinterland, they encounter a landscape that is already fully known and established to First Nations, crisscrossed with their own highways, roads and regions that have been cleared for settlement and ceremony. Possibly the most surprising fact about The Nightingale is this functional approach to the Tasmanian landscape, since “Tasmania” here has been mapped, managed and manipulated by people for thousands of years. In the end, I wonderered whether it was this pragmatic, matter-of-fact approach to the Tasmanian landscape that scandalized audiences and critics, especially when paired with the periodic brutality and violence of the film’s colonial scenes. Rather than presenting the landscape as a blank slate to be colonized once again by sentmental white humanism, as occurs in The Secret River, The Nightingale enacts an indigenous futurity that is largely indifferent to that kind of humanist reassurance, but for that reason unlike almost any recent Australian film I can think of, and perhaps original in ways only an Australian viewer can completely grasp.