Jennifer Kent's Follow-Up to 'The Babadook' Is the Most Brutal Movie You'll See This Summer
If Jennifer Kent were to have included all of the disturbing historical details she uncovered in researching her new film The Nightingale, she could have created something that even she admits would have tested her audience to an extreme degree. "The film I could have made just would have been unbearable," she says. "I had to tone it down."
As it stands, The Nightingale is already a harrowing watch, a piece of art that's unblinking in its depictions of the trauma its protagonist Clare (Aisling Franciosi), an Irish convict in Australia in 1825, suffers. In the early minutes of the nearly two and a half hour movie, Clare is raped multiple times, and her husband and child are killed in front of her eyes by Hawkins (Sam Claflin), the British soldier to whom she is essentially enslaved, and his gang of followers. Her experience sets her off of a path of retribution, following Hawkins through the untouched Tasmanian land alongside Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), an Aboriginal guide, who she treats cruelly until they start to better understand the cycles of abuse they have both endured at the hands of their British colonizers.
Because of the nature of its subject matter, The Nightingale went through cycles of controversy long before it even reached American audiences last week. At last year's Venice Film Festival, a critic during the press screening called Kent a "whore" and yelled "shame on you" in an act of virulent sexism. There were walkouts during its Sydney Film Festival premiere. And while Kent understands that some may be unable to watch the story she's telling, she's evidently frustrated by the ahistorical way in which people are discussing her work. "I'm mystified by people who want to debate historical truth and say we shouldn't know about this," Kent says. "Well, why shouldn't we? I chose what I thought was bearable and what I thought was necessary."
I meet with Kent -- who also directed The Babadook, one of the best horror movies in recent years -- in late July in the bare Los Angeles apartment hotel where she's been staying as she pitches a television series. The now 50-year-old Kent went from being an Australian actress with a couple of short films under her belt to the latest phenomenon in horror filmmaking when her debut feature The Babadook premiered at Sundance in 2014. The bone-chilling tale of a mother and son afflicted by both human tragedy and a menacing children's book monster in a top hat is a violent and tense exploration of what happens when extraordinary grief and the difficulties of parenting meld together. In the interim years, the creature from the (truly upsetting) movie developed a life of its own, finding a home in memes and as an unexpected LGBTQ icon.
But where the internet zigged one way with her work, Kent zagged, creating something that's distressing in an entirely different manner. "It wasn't a matter of, 'Oh I will never do horror,' because I don't think in terms of genre. I think in terms of the story and the idea and what needs to be told," she says. She turned down a lot of opportunities -- she was reportedly a "contender" to direct Captain Marvel -- instead crafting a film entirely her own. She'd come across the seeds of the The Nightingale when she'd visited Tasmania with her first boyfriend when they were both in drama school, and she was struck by both the beauty and sadness of the place that was a British penal colony known for its brutality toward both the convicts that were sent there and the Aboriginal people who were murdered as their land was stolen from them. "The British government wanted to be known as the worst of the worst of the worst," Kent explains. "I wanted to investigate what that meant, what that world was, but more importantly, how can love and compassion and kindness and empathy ever exist in a time like that. That's what I wanted to explore in the characters of Clare and Billy."
To do so accurately and responsibly, Kent worked closely with advisors, including Elaine Barrett, a clinical psychologist, and Aboriginal consultant Jim Everett, who assisted with the film from its script stage. Barrett provided Kent with texts on sexual violence, including one, Men Who Rape, that would be instrumental in crafting the character of Hawkins. The doctor was available throughout the shooting of the inciting incident, which was filmed over two days and involved five rehearsal sessions. "We structured it like you would a dance, without any emotion, and then when we got to shoot it, it was like everyone's body was prepped, the boundaries were set," Kent says of filming the scene in a cramped room, in which the camera remains focused on Clare as she experiences the unwarranted brutal deaths of her loved ones and a horrific gang rape.
Everett, meanwhile, was involved on "every level," Kent says, and even with his expertise, he took details back to the elders at the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre to ask for permission. "He was involved in costuming, in rituals, in how campfires were placed, and how everything was done, how ocher was put on Baykali's face." It's why Kent balks at any critique that her film itself is insensitive in its portrayal of characters like Billy. "Jim used to say to me, 'It's a shared story and we gave you permission to tell it,'" she adds.
By the time I sit down with Kent, she's been talking about The Nightingale to the press for nearly a year now. She carries an evident annoyance with how news items about a couple of reactions to her film spread to America and Britain and came to define a narrative before most anyone had seen it. "I feel like if a man made this film, I don't think it would have received the beating that it has," she says.
It's not as if The Babadook is an easy film to digest, but being in a supernatural genre affords it a cushion that The Nightingale doesn't have. Kent describes the latter as a war film, and recognizes that the depiction of sexual violence is what most people find uncomfortable. "I think it's getting harder and harder to tell unique stories when what's been shoved down our throats is just pap, it's just entertainment," she says. "Sure, film can be that, but it shouldn't just be that. Maybe it's the mood I'm in today, but I also think film also shouldn't be about box office, like this film broke box office records, so therefore it's a good film. We know that's not to be true. I'm sort of in the camp of David Lynch: Don't talk too much about what you do and don't listen too much about what's coming back from people you don't know." Kent considers Lynch one of her "mentors by proxy," along with Ingmar Bergman and Agnès Varda. She also, like Lynch, is a proponent of meditation, estimating that she's likely spent a year of her life in silence.
Kent is currently trying to get a television series about science fiction writer James Tiptree Jr., née Alice Bradley Sheldon, off the ground, while also attempting to find financing for her adaptation of Alice + Freda Forever, a true story about a lesbian couple in 19th Century Memphis. She's spoken with Guillermo del Toro about writing and directing an episode of his upcoming Netflix horror anthology. She seems adamant on not following any predetermined path.
Both of her features are psychologically challenging and ask viewers to engage with humanity's worst impulses, but still end on notes of strange catharsis. "There are moments of beauty in terrible situations. There's dark and light together. It's not very Hollywood because Hollywood is all about vanquishing the darkness," she says. "But I want to embrace it. It's only in feeling that that you really are capable of feeling enormous joy and love and well. I don't know. I guess it's just like my years of meditation."