Tuesday, September 24, 2019
The Nightingale Film- The Black Wars
‘THE NIGHTINGALE’- CHALLENGING HISTORICAL DRAMA
The film THE NIGHTINGALE has earned itself a reputation for unsettling its audience and provoking extreme reactions because of the brutality it depicts on the screen, including visceral stabbings, shootings, infanticide and multiple rapes. When I went yesterday at the Nova, the film was freeze framed fifteen minutes in, on a shot of a bewildered Clare, the Irish convict, grappling to come to terms with sexual assault and the dual murders of her baby son and her husband. This was because of a distraught woman several rows behind me who had something akin to an episode of panic or fear, who was escorted outside by friends and staff. Others took the opportunity to walk out at this moment. Then the film rolled on again with Clare wandering the jungle of early 19th century Tasmania, in search of an Aboriginal tracker to enable her to find her family’s killers and seek revenge.
I left the film feeling rewarded and challenged, and grateful for films like The Nightingale that take risks in order to tell important stories about our past in a truthful and unflinching way. I say our past because it is refreshing to see an important Australian story unfold rather than something that happened in Poland in WW2 or America in the 1950’s or South Africa during apartheid. I saw Mike Leigh’s Peterloo recently, and as much as I appreciated the craftmanship, I couldn’t help feeling that we are so often subjected to other people’s stories. I read Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (NSW), now I’ve seen this film (Tasmania), and now I am hungry for a colonial story about Victoria.
The film shows Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in 1825 to be a completely lawless society where those in power (the British), think nothing of treating those ‘beneath them’ with utter contempt. Very low on the scale are the Irish women convicts, like Clare, who has earnt the right to become a free settler. She is married, with a baby, simply asking for her freedom three years after it is overdue. Firstly, she approaches her overseer (the principal antagonist in the film) asking for her rights, only to be struck across the face and raped. Then her husband sees the same British officer on their behalf, and we, the audience, hold our breath as he confronts his ‘boss’ assertively, demanding their release, and is forced to watch his wife get raped again, and is then shot dead for his troubles. Their screaming baby is suddenly put out of its misery. This is no place for baby, mother and pleading husband, Irish convicts.
Then we have the original settlers, all victims of the Black Wars, the Tasmanian aboriginals. The small British troupe led by murderous officer Hawkins, on their way to Launceston with their own black tracker, encounter aboriginals on their path. One such helpless woman, alone in the bush with her small child, has the misfortune to fall across their path. One of Hawkins’ subordinates sums up the situation with a gleeful look in his eye. He pleads with Hawkins to be allowed to rape her, and Hawkins agrees to his demand, but only if he is prepared to go second. The terrified aboriginal woman screams in horror and lapses into her native tongue calling upon spirits to defend her and her child.
This is just one of many horrific crimes perpetrated against both the Irish and the blacks. Clare’s black tracker, Billy, finds it easier to accept his navigational task once he realises that Clare is Irish, and that they both have in common a deep contempt for the British. In what might be the most telling scene in the film, Clare and Billy come across a separate group of British officers marching away from Launceston, guns pointed at their black prisoners. Billy converses with them in his native tongue and discovers that his tribe, the Linetemairrener people, have all been massacred. This is an incredibly weighty moment for Billy. His self-control becomes extraordinary when he witnesses these black men being shot in front of him for speaking their native tongue, with one of them even getting his head cut off for as a trophy for one of the British officers. Billy walks on with Clare, shock, but at the same time, deep resignation, scrawled all over his face. Afterall, he has very little choice. It is not until later in the film that he breaks down, sobbing painfully for the massacre of his people. He is so acutely aware that it is his land, the land of his people, that is being desecrated unflinchingly with murder and abuse.
I never read any of this in the Australian history books at high school. There were brief mentions of aboriginal history. However, much of it was taken up with the various ways that New South Wales and other states were settled, seemingly painlessly and with precision. Larissa Behrendt, the well-known aboriginal academic from Sydney, has written a piece in The Guardian about Hannah Kent’s misguided approach to the whole colonial issue- https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/aug/20/the-nightingale-review-ambitious-urgent-and-necessarily-brutal-but-who-is-it-for
Behrendt admires the film, however, she does have some strong misgivings. She objects to the fact that ‘this is clearly Clare’s story: the film starts with Clare and ends on her gaze, privileging her point of view. It is from Clare’s perspective that the connections between her situation and that of Aboriginal people like Billy are explored.’ I understand her concerns. Some in the audience would leave the cinema with perhaps more of a feeling of the abuse and injustices metered out to Clare, the Irish convict, than for Billy, and I can see why this might be a problem. The fact that she thinks Billy’s story, and the story of the aboriginal people, are somehow subordinate to newcomers, like convicts, naturally grates with her. But I can imagine asking Hannah Kent about this. She would tell me that she was conscious of the black story all throughout. Otherwise we would not have scenes as described above. I for one was more conscious of Billy and his story than I was of Clare’s. it’s all about our individual perspectives. My heart bled for both, but I would say Billy and his people in particular. His life, and his people’s lives, seemed to be the most disregarded, trashed, insignificant to me. The attitude of the British officers to Clare and Billy both was appalling.
A feminist reading of the film, and Behrendt’s perspective as a woman, would lend itself to becoming more conscious of Clare’s plight than anyone else’s. But now, thinking back to the film, and feeling quite changed by it, I am thinking of the way land can be ripped away, the way an old order can so swiftly be altered to become a new order. I feel more aware than ever of the atrocities of the past and the way they keep continuing on to the present and the future. That is why we all need reminders of whose land we live under. This is why we should not always be submerged with stories from other countries and other continents and become much more aware of our own stories in our own backyards.
The film informed me, as much as anything else, that there are periods of utter lawlessness in our history where people can somehow be allowed to become corrupt, cruel, unforgiving. The British officers behave this way partly because they are given the opportunity on a platter. In their minds there is no recourse for their actions. They brutalise the men, and they take the women, because the opportunity presents itself to them and they cannot resist the feeling of power this opportunity gives them. You watch the film and you think of the victims equally. Clare may be white but she did not choose to go to Van Diemen’s Land. As for Billy and the other black men like him, well, it is their home. Or rather, was their home.