Rape-revenge is a powerful mythic structure. Through its apparently elegant binary simplicity any number of messy polarities (although most typically those of gender inequality) can be both framed and complicated. Part of what muddies these waters is the viewer’s awareness of the twinned, if not quite symmetrical, wrongness of both sides of the equation: rape is obviously beyond any sort of pale, but the ethics of revenge are also highly questionable. When a film like The Nightingale confront viewers with these ethical quandaries, it is forcing us to work through our complex, often contradictory feelings about sexed relations, power and justice.
The revenge in The Nightingale is not just directed at rape – after all, Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin) also commits or commands acts of murder before the horrified eyes of protagonist Clare (Aisling Franciosi). This is in the early nineteenth century, in the penal colony of Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen’s Land, and the status of young mother Clare and her husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) as both Irish nationals and former convicts makes them untrustworthy in the eyes of the law and liable to abuse at the isolated British army outpost where, until such time as Hawkins sees fit formally to recommend their freedom, they are forced to work as indentured servants. Certainly, Hawkins habitually rapes Clare, and even on one occasion passes her on to his odious Sergeant, Ruse (Damon Herriman), for further violation. Later, as Hawkins treks with Ruse and others through wild bushland in the hope that he can get to Launceston in time to assume a coveted Captaincy, he captures and rapes an Aboriginal woman, again sharing her with Ruse. Here rape is casually administered by the powerful upon the powerless, is considered an entitlement by the officer class (although not, notably, by a visiting Captain), and the women who are its victims are deemed ‘whores’ and essentially expendable. Hawkins is a psychopath, the worst of a bad lot but also a man very much in keeping with his times – and his belief that he effectively owns Clare goes largely unchallenged because it is, at least in part, technically true.
In parallel to Hawkins’ cross-country journey through hostile wilderness, and far more prominent, is Clare’s dogged pursuit of him, with hired native Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) for her reluctant guide. When they first meet, both Clare and Billy harbour openly racist attitudes towards each other – she believes the rumours that Australia’s indigenous population comprises savages and cannibals, he lumps her in with his English oppressors. As this initially distrustful pair comes to hear each other’s stories and to recognise the similar injustices that they have endured at the hands of the British setters, The Nightingale charts an intersection of suffering and solidarity on the map of Australia’s colonial history. Accordingly, the rape of a woman, and the rape of a land and a people, are merged into a single story, much as, in the film, Clare’s waking and sleeping nightmares become one (writer/director Jennifer Kent’s 2014 feature debut The Babadook is otherwise very different, but The Nightingale shares its reified representations of a woman’s damaged interiority, and its close-ups on a traumatised face). Clare and Billy are sharing not just a rough road through the bushland, but a deeply entrenched mental shock over the bludgeoning mistreatment of themselves and their loved ones.
Like all the best rape-revenge films, The Nightingale constantly scrutinises the morality of its own vindictive spirit. Set in 1825, when a local officer like Hawkins, strutting lord of his own backwoods, is the only authority to whom a woman like Clare could turn for redress when wronged, the fact that he is himself the wrongdoer leaves her no other recourse, apart from suffering in silence, but to take matters into her own hands – even if her attitude to her own path of vengeance will gradually soften. Her final court of appeal will turn out to be an Aboriginal notion of retributive justice, executed for the good not of an individual but of the community. The film ends on a beach, with a view of the rising sun, and of the rather bleak-looking future that it brings. That future, of course, is our present, in a film that shows the seeds being sown for where Australia is today, still divided over issues of sex, race and class, and still bearing the horrific scars of its relatively recent history.
© Anton Bitel