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 (2018)
86%

#1
Adjusted Score: 99789%
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: Clare, a young Irish convict, chases a British officer through the rugged Tasmanian wilderness and is bent on revenge for... [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

BBC America TV BBC BET sports NBA tv talk Baby Yoda mob Pirates satire Marvel Television Avengers popular remakes action-comedy Disney Channel Emmy Nominations Alien 90s Cosplay leaderboard Apple Captain marvel Trivia TLC GIFs Ovation Podcast TruTV Comic-Con@Home 2021 dc Summer 2017 art house documentary DC Universe NYCC TBS fresh DGA Oscars aliens Tumblr fast and furious rt labs suspense high school OWN sitcom Amazon Studios politics CBS All Access First Look CW Seed stoner Super Bowl Awards Year in Review Cartoon Network Fargo YouTube Red Song of Ice and Fire Classic Film foreign black comedy trophy Sundance TV crime Tarantino Lifetime Winners HBO Max superman lord of the rings HBO Go Comedy Central venice Hallmark Christmas movies The Purge adventure 2016 Vudu television finale Chilling Adventures of Sabrina king arthur ITV SXSW FX transformers name the review japan scary Interview jurassic park Disney streaming service romance Musical teaser Teen police drama green book rotten movies we love Ghostbusters dogs doctor who a nightmare on elm street parents new zealand Hear Us Out A24 Election reboot cartoon basketball Netflix critics Sony Pictures Universal Pictures rotten reviews toy story razzies Comic Book E3 Disney Plus 4/20 Comics on TV Family Star Wars japanese Rom-Com Certified Fresh nfl best golden globes blaxploitation Paramount Network comedies GLAAD posters Food Network facebook Extras dexter The Witch Elton John The Walking Dead halloween tv dark spanish scary movies kong Showtime TIFF breaking bad Paramount Plus target Pacific Islander series comic book movies rt archives spanish language wonder woman Freeform Drama Holidays IFC Films Disney+ Disney Plus rom-coms asian-american Britbox Paramount 2015 debate Stephen King documentaries VOD Fox News Universal miniseries binge cats Epix Character Guide National Geographic Tokyo Olympics CBS book adaptation live event Heroines Sundance Marvel Sundance Now gangster cults See It Skip It ESPN History BAFTA Quiz Red Carpet anime comics Pop TV zero dark thirty video on demand BBC One Funimation Cannes docuseries psychological thriller Television Critics Association joker streaming Travel Channel black Tubi olympics 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards supernatural Marvel Studios south america Endgame Video Games mission: impossible Adult Swim new york cancelled TV series Best and Worst vampires Rocketman book universal monsters crime drama concert YA critic resources Wes Anderson 007 biopic true crime social media laika anthology cancelled adenture criterion space Lifetime Christmas movies child's play DC Comics Comedy Country Apple TV+ 73rd Emmy Awards VH1 APB TCA Awards twilight RT21 RT History Martial Arts 21st Century Fox dreamworks technology animated casting mutant emmy awards 24 frames boxoffice stand-up comedy The Arrangement Countdown diversity pirates of the caribbean thriller First Reviews scorecard harry potter 93rd Oscars singing competition know your critic USA Network trailers Infographic disaster spinoff comic Turner Classic Movies Animation Amazon Prime Video young adult mcc what to watch werewolf science fiction spain FOX Pet Sematary sopranos italian ghosts composers boxing king kong streaming movies Crackle Neflix Reality Competition scene in color PBS game show archives canceled Rocky revenge genre Watching Series festival Polls and Games Trailer Arrowverse cancelled TV shows Netflix Christmas movies hispanic heritage month medical drama YouTube Premium Fox Searchlight Pop french serial killer HBO Calendar hispanic Awards Tour ratings prank Bravo movie hidden camera political drama Lucasfilm Mindy Kaling deadpool Christmas sequel Winter TV worst movies natural history Sci-Fi marvel cinematic universe crime thriller toronto Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Film Festival MSNBC Writers Guild of America Legendary jamie lee curtis robots Logo TV One WarnerMedia The CW spider-man 71st Emmy Awards 72 Emmy Awards live action Shondaland Schedule travel Kids & Family based on movie directors 2020 Marathons TNT justice league Music franchise Spike Tomatazos AMC vs. ID Reality PaleyFest james bond 2019 monster movies cancelled television American Society of Cinematographers Image Comics MTV MCU TV renewals Ellie Kemper legend comic book movie richard e. Grant free movies VICE dramedy Musicals children's TV screen actors guild PlayStation sequels Warner Bros. strong female leads halloween theme song blockbuster indiana jones movies all-time Peacock Esquire Mary Poppins Returns Mudbound festivals Starz Television Academy 20th Century Fox Toys Binge Guide Nominations Black History Month Superheroe The Academy women period drama Columbia Pictures new star wars movies Lionsgate Western ViacomCBS classics Brie Larson renewed TV shows Exclusive Video international Fall TV Thanksgiving Premiere Dates NBC Masterpiece latino Creative Arts Emmys E! crossover Amazon Prime Anna Paquin kids Biopics psycho Hulu Apple TV Plus golden globe awards independent Trophy Talk President quibi game of thrones versus die hard FX on Hulu SundanceTV GoT Acorn TV CNN USA SDCC obituary Black Mirror The Walt Disney Company comic books australia award winner adaptation Crunchyroll OneApp indie news worst docudrama video A&E Rock DirecTV stop motion TCA feel good LGBTQ Hallmark royal family Action 45 screenings BET Awards IMDb TV romantic comedy Horror dragons Grammys ABC El Rey Emmys Mary Tyler Moore discovery YouTube 99% TV movies canceled TV shows ABC Signature Valentine's Day Spectrum Originals TCM cinemax slashers Nickelodeon Syfy Mystery unscripted Amazon films Pride Month cops Set visit zombie 1990s Holiday Chernobyl godzilla sag awards IFC blockbusters Academy Awards telelvision spider-verse TCA 2017 elevated horror heist movie Dark Horse Comics Film Turner Fantasy chucky Mary poppins Star Trek hollywood Nat Geo saw San Diego Comic-Con dceu zombies Instagram Live DC streaming service superhero Disney historical drama Shudder football Women's History Month slasher TCA Winter 2020 Broadway cars FXX aapi comiccon nbcuniversal ABC Family batman biography Superheroes hist war 2018 mockumentary spy thriller X-Men Discovery Channel nature cooking talk show AMC Plus LGBT Opinion 2021 Box Office Spring TV rt labs critics edition witnail Pixar TV Land Walt Disney Pictures Sneak Peek marvel comics christmas movies WGN CMT Photos New York Comic Con kaiju