When Jennifer Kent’s first feature, “The Babadook,” premiered at Sundance, she was greeted as the year’s breakout auteur. In the fall of 2018, when “The Nightingale” premiered in Venice, she faced a very different reaction.
“It was awful,” the Australian director said, reflecting on the experience a year later. “My gender overtook my film. It still mystifies me.”
As the only woman director in Venice’s competition, Kent faced a harsh response to her movie that overwhelmed the work itself. And “The Nightingale” deserves better: Like “The Babadook,” it’s a mesmerizing immersion into one woman’s broken life, and her capacity to wrestle control of it. But in other ways, it’s a dramatic expansion of her talent, confronting the country’s centuries of racism and misogyny through a visceral lens, and the ultimate mission statement from a filmmaker who could have easily been devoured by the Hollywood machine.
Unlike the eerie hauntings of “The Babadook,” this masterful Australian period piece unfolds in colonial Australia circa 1825, as Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi), sentenced to indentured servitude, survives a harrowing rape and embarks on a dizzying quest for revenge. After her husband and newborn child are murdered by her assaultive master, a British officer (Sam Claflin), Clare joins forces with a reticent aboriginal guide (Baykali Ganambarr) on a perilous trip across dense forestry to track down the man who ruined her life.
The movie blends the grand tapestry of a historical epic with the intimate travails of its victim as she comes to grips with her situation; the visuals oscillate from sweeping landscapes to gothic nightmares as Clare comes closer to confronting her target.
Far more than a rape-revenge story, “The Nightingale” allows the filmmaker to expand on motifs of violence and psychological turmoil without repeating herself. The movie wrestles with victimhood on multiple fronts, not only contending with Clare’s experiences but the persecution of the Aboriginal people as well, juggling repressed dimensions of the Australian psyche with a sophisticated eye. “There’s a lot of shame on the part of the invader, and I think also a lot of denial,” she said.
Yet none of those nuances came up at Venice, where a film critic shouted sexist insults during the credits and Kent found herself answering to the movie in ways that diminished its intentions. “Being seen through this lens of the most violent film at the festival that a woman made, my god,” she said. “It was something else. It’s just the wrong way to frame things. I work bloody hard, just like the men do, and what a great day it will be when we’re just all artists.”
Kent didn’t expect such controversy, but she knew that “The Nightingale” would provoke a strong reaction. Clare isn’t the only rape victim in the movie, and the scenes featuring sexual assault were conceived to provoke a powerful effect. “I feel that we learn a lot by looking at the truth of things, even if that’s a really bitter pill that we have to swallow,” she said. “What I’ve learned is the difficult relationship we have in separating the act of rape as an act of sex as opposed to an act of violence. I’m in the latter camp. It’s using a sex act to attempt to annihilate another human being. That’s its aim.”
Both times that Clare is raped, the camera remains close to her face, with multiple cutaways to her perspective. “I put it entirely from her experience,” Kent said. “That’s what’s upsetting to people. It is real. It really stays on the emotion of the person. Our minds do the work for us.” Kent drew from historical reports on the era. “It was commonplace for convict women to be raped,” she said. “They would rather be in solitary confinement than be with their masters because they were habitually abused. It’s not like we’ve made that up.”
At the same time, Kent positioned these scenes in contemporary terms. “Rape and sexual violence is at an epidemic proportion throughout the world,” she said. “Turning away, like that’s somehow respectful, is not getting us anywhere.”
Kent has wrestled with representational issues for much of her career, pushing back on the expectations thrust her way. She turned to filmmaking in her 40s, after starting her career as an actress. “Women had to look a certain way,” she said. “I found that very marginalizing as an actor. You look this way so you have to play this role. I’m pretty funny, but I’d never get funny roles. That’s probably one of the reasons why I gave it up.”
Then came the aftermath of “The Babadook,” a surprise cultural phenomenon that led to multiple offers to turn the horror story into a franchise. Kent and her producer owned the rights and refused. “I told my agents I’m not going to do a series of horror movies, I’m not going to do franchises,” she said. “It was just a brick wall for anyone who approached.” Though horror fans took “The Babadook” up as a cause célèbre, she was reticent to embrace the commercial side of the genre. “It’s an inherently cinematic genre, and I think it’s cheapened when it’s just made cynically,” she said. “That’s not to say that if a horror film makes money, that means it’s shit, but I think you’ve got still got to put quality ahead of genre. I probably won’t do another horror unless it has real depth to it.”
Instead, she began writing a period romance, which eventually morphed into “The Nightingale.” After passing on various blockbuster gigs, Kent immersed herself in the study of aboriginal culture. “My commitment was to absolutely research the heck out of it,” she said. “We found this amazing Tasmanian elder who understood I wasn’t trying to appropriate the story, that I was sincere in what I was trying to say. If I was going to do it, it had to be in collaboration.” She grew close to her advisors over the course of the shoot.
“It’s honestly been the joy of my life, the most precious thing for me creatively and as a person, to learn more about that culture,” she said. “It’s 60,000 years old. If a culture can survive for that long and keep the land that they live in pristine and surviving, there’s got to be some wisdom there.”
Having solidified her directing skills a second time around, Kent’s profile has expanded even further. She’s in the process of finalizing plans for her next feature, the U.S.-set “Alice + Freda Forever,” which revolves around a lesbian romance in the late 19th century that culminated in violent circumstances. Guillermo del Toro has hired her to direct an upcoming installment of his Netflix show “Ten After Midnight,” and she’s developing the American series “Tiptree,” which focuses on sci-fi writer Alice Bradley.
She said she was less invested in the film-versus-television question than where she could work on her own terms. “We need independent cinema, we need those voices, and whether they exist in a streaming service or elsewhere is not the issue,” she said. “Independent films have to compete with big blockbusters that make hundreds of millions of dollars and we just can’t even try. It doesn’t make sense to be squashed into the same box.” Kent’s defiant attitude has grown robust with time. “Some of us feel like we’re limping along,” she said, and smiled. “But I’m really stubborn, and refuse to give up.”
That brings her back to Venice, where she’ll return this year as a member of the jury. She has already voiced her concern that there are only two women directors in this year’s lineup, with Haifaa Al-Mansour’s “The Candidate” and Shannon Murphy’s “Babyteeth” vying for the Golden Lion. “Those two women need me there,” Kent said, noting that she would appear on a panel about women in film during the festival. “That’s not to say I’m going to show any preference — but I want there to be more women who are there for them.”
“The Nightingale” is now playing in select theaters from IFC Films.