News

Nightingale Director Jennifer Kent: It's Not My Job To Make The Audience Feel Safe

Her brutal, acclaimed follow-up to The Babadook is leaving people shaken, but the director makes no apologies for her unflinching look at history as it happened.

by | August 1, 2019 | Comments

The Nightingale
(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Kasia Ladczuk. )

Five years after The Babadook made Jennifer Kent a household name – at least within the homes of adventurous filmgoers with a thirst for smart and terrifying horror – the Australian director returns with a brutal, controversial, and Certified Fresh surprise. For her second feature film, The Nightingale, Kent moves away from the horror genre and jumps back in time to 1825 Tasmania, the small island at the base of southeast Australia from which some of the darkest stories of the nation’s colonization have emerged. It’s a bleak setting for a brutal story. Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) seeks revenge on a British officer (Sam Claflin) after he and two other men rape her and kill her husband and baby. Her chase takes her through the wilderness of Tasmania as the officer and his crew head north to the city of Launceston; to navigate the woods, she enlists – steals, really – Aboriginal man Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to work as her tracker. At Sundance in January, where the film had its U.S. debut, a number of audience members walked out of the premiere screening, mirroring reactions at other film festivals where the film has screened. There are multiple scenes of rape, two of them extended, and moments of extreme violence. But there is also an unflinching honesty that drives the film, a rage, and a refusal to turn away from the brutality of colonial history that many are hailing as an overdue corrective to more sugarcoated readings of the period. Rotten Tomatoes met with Kent the day after the Sundance premiere at a hotel lobby in Park City, Utah, to talk about reactions to the film and the director’s determination to throw a torch into dark corners, no matter how uncomfortable it makes those who have to look.


Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: When you introduced the film last night, you said you didn’t necessarily think of it as a period film, but a contemporary film. What did you mean by that?

Jennifer Kent: I mean, I think of it as a myth. Not in that it’s untrue, but just, I love myth. I love mythical stories, but I don’t really love period dramas that kind of focus on costumes and sweeping images. I guess I meant that the concerns of the film are modern. You know? Charlie says, ‘It’s a really brutal time.’ But I think [the time] where we’re living now is brutal.

Rotten Tomatoes: Watching with an American audience, when you made the comment about it being a brutal time, I think everyone sort of chuckled assuming it was a reference to U.S. politics. But being at that screening so close to Australia Day [which marks the day the first fleet of British settlers arrived to colonize the country], it felt much more directed at Australia and the debate around Indigenous rights and history there. It hit hard.

Kent: Yeah, well I’m really happy to hear. Not happy to hear it hit you, but…I mean, I am, because I feel I have so much to say. I went to the Adelaide Film Festival, and I was really scared about how the Australian audience would take it to be honest. I just thought, we’ve had such a blind spot in the past historically. And I think we went in with such sensitivity to that, but we couldn’t not tell [certain parts of the story]. You can’t not include those things in 1825 Tasmania because that is what happened. But also I think in order for this to change we need to shine a light on the darkness. Then we will really start to move forward, I think, have some kind of reconciliation and evolution together.

The Nightingale
(Photo by Matt Nettheim, © IFC Films)

Rotten Tomatoes: How was the reaction at that first Australian screening in Adelaide?

Kent: So yeah, I was really scared. And at the end of the screening no one left, no one clapped in the credits. It was dead silence for the whole, I don’t know, those credits were four minutes or something. Then after the music ended and the screen went black, they stood up and gave a standing ovation for several minutes. And it really felt real – because Australians don’t give standing ovations.

Rotten Tomatoes: The film contains some brutal scenes, including two extended rape scenes and then there’s a smashing of a man’s head, shown graphically. How sensitive are you in shooting and editing in terms of how far to take it and how much an audience will be able to take? 

Kent: I mean yes that’s violent, but no more violent than, say, Game of Thrones. But I don’t think that’s what disturbs people. I think it’s all context. For example, if you sat and broke down that big long scene in the hut [in which Franciosi’s character Clare is assaulted by three men], there are only faces. It’s just human emotion. That blows my mind that that’s what really angers people. And you know, I’ve been asked, ‘Do you feel you have the right to put this on screen?’ Well I don’t believe in artist censorship for one, but I also think, ‘What are you asking me to censor? Human emotion? Is that what you want me to take out? Human hatred and rage?’ No, I won’t do that. A person [at the Q&A] last night had said, ‘How are you going to get this film seen across the world, because you show a baby being murdered?’ And I said, ‘No I don’t.’ I said, ‘Your mind saw that. I don’t show that on screen.’ I’ve seen it thousands of times, I know I don’t show it.

I could tell you all sorts of terrible stories that are documented historically that happened in that period that would just shock you to your core. And I think the only thing I think I can say is, I ask the idea, ‘How far do I need to go?’ And the idea tells me. I’m in service to the story. I try with all my heart to tell the purest story I can. It’s not about me.

The Nightingale
(Photo by © IFC Films)

Rotten Tomatoes: The film gives audiences an incredibly blunt, unfiltered portrayal of the way indigenous Australians were treated in that period – and for a long time after. It’s like no film I’ve seen in that way. There are rapes; Billy is treated like an animal. You don’t turn away from anything. And it’s confronting and hard to watch at times.

Kent: It is. It is. I mean all I can say is the Aboriginal people who worked on the film are so proud of it. You know I wish Baykali [Ganambarr, who plays Billy] was here. He’s doing a tour, a world tour with his dance group, but he always says, ‘It’s not sugar coated. It’s as it was.’ And I’m really proud of it.

Rotten Tomatoes: Baykali’s performance is incredible in this film. It’s a shock to hear it’s his first role.

Kent: He hasn’t acted before, but he’s an experienced dancer, so he understands performance. I can’t speak highly enough of Baykali. I love him and he’s a genius actor. Incredibly bright, emotional intelligence. So dedicated. So easy to work with. He just was Billy. He really understood the character. You write a character like that and I thought, ‘How the hell am I gonna, A, find them and, B, direct them?’ It was just meant to be.

Rotten Tomatoes: He’s well matched by Aisling. I remember seeing her in The Fall a few years ago and thinking that she stood out. And the character of Clare is fascinating: She’s sympathetic because of what happens to her at the beginning, but then she loses some of our sympathies because of the way she treats Billy initially. She’s racist and brutal in the same way as the British officers. Was there any temptation to smooth those edges down?

Kent: No. I mean it’s what I tried to do with Essie [Davis], who played Amelia and The Babadook, as well. For example, Amelia going, ‘Oh, my sick kid, I’ve got to go home and look after him,’ and then she goes to the shopping center, has ice cream, and sits. She doesn’t want to be with her child. It’s really important when I’m creating characters to find, you know, a human being. We’re all complex. And I think Clare is a product of her time. And people were racist. That old man towards the end, there were people like that and that’s why he’s in there, because there were people who understood that this system was wrong. It wasn’t a collective blind spot. There were people like him; he wasn’t just a fantasy or hope of mine. People like that existed in history books. They’re there. Just not many.

Jennifer Kent
(Photo by Matt Nettheim )

Rotten Tomatoes: Speaking of horror, because that audience does know you from The Babadook. The movie has a kind of horror structure starting out; something like I Spit On Your Grave or Last House on the Left, with a big brutal thing happening and us expecting then some sort of satisfying revenge. But it doesn’t stick to that at all, and doesn’t give us that.

Kent: If you love those movies you’ll be terribly frustrated by this film, really, don’t you think? Be like, ‘What’s going on? What’s this with the, you know, compassion and empathy?’ No. I don’t want that. But you know it’s a backdrop. It’s not a right revenge film. It’s not.

Rotten Tomatoes: [SPOILER WARNING for the end of The Nightingale]. Indeed. She doesn’t even get to be the one who gets to do the avenging in the end. Was there any temptation to have her do the killing and give the audience that catharsis?

Kent: Only from the financiers, not from me. I’m not interested in giving an audience satisfaction. I think often we’re fed stories that are comforting and for all the wrong reasons. And more and more it’s happening. I think that’s not personally my job to spoon feed people, or make them feel safe, or make them feel better about the world.

Rotten Tomatoes: What do you see as your job?

Kent: I think my job is to serve the story that comes to me, hopefully on a deeper level. And to move people in some direction. And I can’t be responsible. It’s like, you put a painting on the wall, but you can’t be responsible for how people feel about it. I know in my own life, for example, it’s the story I always remind myself of: I saw Mulholland Drive and I hated it. I was so angry, you know, it’s two-and-a-half hours long, nearly three hours long, and I was so pissed off. I was like, ‘This is stupid stuff with the box.’ And really irritating. Even though I loved her performance, it really irritated me. Then I’ve seen it like 10 times since then. Now I realize it was no problem with the film, it was me that was the problem. I appreciate so much more his vision. And I love it, it’s a masterpiece. I never thought that I could change my opinion or feeling about a work of art, but you can. So, we can’t as artists bow to what we think people [want], you know. You can’t want to be liked.


The Nightingale opens in limited release August 2, 2019.

#1

The Nightingale (2019)
87%

#1
Adjusted Score: 96.915%
Critics Consensus: The Nightingale definitely isn't for all tastes, but writer-director Jennifer Kent taps into a rich vein of palpable rage to tell a war story that leaves a bruising impact.
Synopsis: THE NIGHTINGALE is a meditation on the consequences of violence and the price of seeking vengeance. Set during the colonization... [More]
Directed By: Jennifer Kent

Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.

Tag Cloud

ESPN GoT quibi social media cancelled TV series Reality MSNBC CBS TruTV Arrowverse Star Wars Ovation Lucasfilm Rocketman based on movie spain natural history dramedy RT21 Discovery Channel space 21st Century Fox 2015 cults Watching Series DC Universe 2020 teaser Photos TCA Emmy Nominations festivals Drama Turner Classic Movies screenings Apple TV+ TLC cancelled TV shows cinemax Tarantino Superheroe 2018 Dark Horse Comics Holiday romance TBS cartoon adventure romantic comedy Fox News halloween Martial Arts Best and Worst miniseries travel witnail Emmys television revenge Animation Superheroes Schedule Paramount Network spanish language Calendar Year in Review Western Action WGN christmas movies thriller Logo Syfy diversity Comics on TV Binge Guide justice league E! police drama Musical green book Opinion dragons canceled spinoff Masterpiece TCA 2017 hispanic cancelled Spring TV Tubi docudrama Winners TV NYCC children's TV canceled TV shows TIFF Biopics FX Country spy thriller Baby Yoda Box Office Vudu ABC Family PBS National Geographic Paramount Video Games Brie Larson Infographic Apple Tomatazos free movies boxoffice comics Toys true crime The Arrangement screen actors guild Sneak Peek Hallmark Christmas movies Disney Plus Sundance Now Film adaptation SundanceTV Adult Swim psychological thriller Horror medical drama anthology Musicals Star Trek Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Chernobyl Summer Cosplay DC Comics Marvel Studios Turner Starz Amazon Prime Video OneApp BET TV renewals transformers Spike sitcom book spider-man cops golden globes comiccon werewolf comic History GLAAD facebook Netflix Christmas movies 2016 sequel BBC LGBTQ Sci-Fi Grammys dceu Pet Sematary TCA Winter 2020 Christmas serial killer name the review video Awards Tour GIFs YouTube Red Lionsgate DirecTV mockumentary Extras Fall TV jamie lee curtis Nominations Polls and Games cooking Ghostbusters Rock 2019 RT History game of thrones Character Guide MCU The CW Comedy Trophy Talk Amazon Prime Crunchyroll Stephen King Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt CBS All Access unscripted elevated horror Showtime cars Comic Book IFC Films Marvel tv talk Quiz Reality Competition what to watch First Look Shudder CNN WarnerMedia YouTube TV Land TNT casting Heroines Holidays See It Skip It 20th Century Fox war Creative Arts Emmys Ellie Kemper Rom-Com singing competition YA Hulu foreign breaking bad Epix binge Freeform Captain marvel Awards Rocky CMT Cannes Anna Paquin New York Comic Con Marathons Netflix finale Food Network Mindy Kaling Disney Channel A24 Pride Month MTV Pirates blockbuster Mary Poppins Returns Red Carpet VH1 biography El Rey Bravo FOX political drama disaster cancelled television Disney crossover Avengers Television Academy 007 Sony Pictures Fantasy award winner versus Thanksgiving Mystery Britbox Set visit robots Endgame period drama Podcast Academy Awards indie animated Sundance TV Elton John talk show American Society of Cinematographers independent ITV zombie politics richard e. Grant E3 Family Esquire HBO Max slashers Hallmark Film Festival dc directors LGBT Spectrum Originals First Reviews streaming DC streaming service composers Mary Tyler Moore Countdown nature doctor who USA anime Columbia Pictures TCM SDCC Black Mirror zero dark thirty Cartoon Network crime thriller cats The Walking Dead rotten movies we love south america hist psycho Election crime Valentine's Day supernatural Crackle YouTube Premium NBC sports Women's History Month CW Seed Music ghosts strong female leads crime drama vampires FXX Kids & Family mutant SXSW Interview zombies Lifetime Christmas movies A&E Premiere Dates batman series technology sag awards kids Warner Bros. theme song latino USA Network reboot historical drama The Purge Peacock Walt Disney Pictures science fiction AMC harry potter movies X-Men Winter TV Disney+ Disney Plus IFC Tumblr Disney streaming service HBO OWN APB toy story aliens San Diego Comic-Con Sundance President Mudbound Shondaland renewed TV shows Pop 24 frames game show Lifetime Teen discovery 2017 The Witch joker Super Bowl Marvel Television DGA Pixar Apple TV Plus Amazon 45 Classic Film Comedy Central stand-up comedy Nat Geo Oscars Song of Ice and Fire Nickelodeon Acorn TV blaxploitation PaleyFest ratings Certified Fresh VICE 71st Emmy Awards BBC America Trailer Writers Guild of America Universal ABC Trivia Mary poppins