Content Warning for talk of sexual assault that happens in the film.
For lack of a better descriptor, Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is one hell of a watch. It has prompted walk-outs and has been dismissal as another rape-revenge narrative. Its stomach-churning violence is enough to invoke nausea, but its story is just as relevant now as it was in the late 1800’s. After a horrific tragedy inflicted by British soldiers, Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is on a mission for justice against those who have wronged her. On the way, she comes across Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal Australian man, who has also been wronged by white men. A disturbing tale about the white man’s oppression, The Nightingale strives to make viewers uncomfortable by immersing them int a world that is so bleak and illustrates the bloody side of history.
I sat down with Franciosi and Ganambarr to talk about how they prepared themselves for this disturbing material and the importance of The Nightingale.
How was it working with Jennifer Kent?
Baykali Ganambarr: It was just so incredible working with her. She’s really honest about the history of Australia. This was my first feature film role, and she was always there supporting me. She’s a little bit pushy, but she was amazing working with her.
Aisling Franciosi: She’s one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with. She pushed us to our limits, but she’s also incredibly supportive. And I think it was really comforting knowing that she wouldn’t ever let anything that wasn’t our best make it into the cut. It’s really incredible watching her be so uncompromising about the important things. Sometimes, she didn’t care if we were going overtime because she needed to capture the emotion of that certain scene. You knew that when she called “Cut”, and she looked happy, that she was actually satisfied.
There is a lot of deep and disturbing material present in The Nightingale. How did you produce all of that rage?
AF: I suppose that the rage was already there. Jennifer [Kent] would give us some notes sometimes or whisper something in our ear that left us with some emotion. But I think the research I did on Australian history and the convict history made me really angry, so the notes just piled onto the anger I already had. I was pretty exhausted at the end of most days because it’s draining to have to go to those negative spaces all the time.
BG: For me, doing the dark scenes was pretty tough because it was difficult spark that emotion. Jennifer [Kent] didn’t want me to fake cry in the film. She actually wanted me to cry. I thought about my past history and what I’ve been through. It was pretty tough, but I’m glad that I pushed myself and got through it.
I was pretty much on a mission to represent my culture on a big screen. For many years, my family has been trying to get the word out about our history and share our culture with Australians. Getting into this movie was a platform for me to go out and speak out and tell the rest of the world that we’re here and we exist.
How did it feel winning an award at the Venice Film Festival for your first role?
BG: I still can’t believe it. I was really shocked and nervous when my name got called out. I was standing next to Jennifer and I was shaking, and she grabbed my arm.
AF: He gave a great speech though!
This film had a very divisive reaction at film festivals, resulting in even some walk-outs. Were you expecting this type of reaction?
AF: I did, yes. But, honestly, I’m so proud of what it’s doing. Apart from anything, the film isn’t gratuitously violent or glamourizing violence in any shape or form. It’s really looking at the truth of what violence is and how abhorrent we can be as human beings. I think that it being divisive shows that we hit on topics that need to be talked about.
Not a lot of people know about the colonial history of Australia and I think this film really helped make viewers aware of this dark past. Baykali, what is this film to you? What do you want people to get out of it?
BG: I want people to learn about not only the history of Australia but also about how to love each other. Most people think The Nightingale is a horror film but it’s not. It’s about love and respect. That’s what Clare and Billy find for each other throughout the film.
People are calling this film a rape-revenge film. Do you agree with that, and if not, how would you describe the film?
AF: I would not agree with that term. I suppose in a broader aspect, you could call it a rape-revenge film, but that would be a little reductive. One issue I have with “rape-revenge films” is that there’s the rape and then there’s the revenge. They’re treated as two separate events. Rape is the event and then the character gets over it and quickly moves onto the revenge. Rape is something that victims have to deal with for a very long time. It’s not something that just stops when you’re getting revenge. I think this is not really the classic revenge tale because it shows how getting revenge can be destructive for the seeker. Clare tries to go down the path of “an eye-for-an-eye” and it almost kills her. Life is messy, and sometimes what you’re looking for isn’t exactly what you needed.
I’m not quite sure how I would describe the film. I suppose I would say it’s a gothic but still relevant tale of the human nature of empathy and how important it is to love.