BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC The Nightingale, director Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to her 2014 breakout hit Babadook, tells an intimate story about the history of her home country Australia. The gritty western takes place in 1825 during the ‘Black War’ with the British attempting to colonize the Island of Tasmania and drive out its Aboriginal inhabitants any way they can. The film stars Aisling Franciosi as Clare, a young Irish convict shipped to Tasmania to serve her seven-year debt to the British government, which when the film begins, she has just completed. The problem is the abusive British lieutenant Hawkins refuses to release her from his supervision. When Hawkins loses a promotion due rumors of his behavior towards the woman in his charge, he takes everything possible from the young woman, which sends her out for revenge.
If you’re not familiar with Aisling Franciosi, who you may have caught as Lyanna Stark on Game of Thrones, judging by critical reactions to her performance in The Nightingale you will soon be. She imbues the role with an unflinching fearlessness and emotion as she takes us through this very brutal story. Aisling was born in Italy and grew up in Dublin, Ireland and got her big break playing Katie Benedetto in the BBC crime series The Fall. I got to speak with her last week about her role in The Nightingale and some of the controversy surrounding the subject matter the film tackles, which is still very relevant and poignant even today.
PHAWKER: We rarely get a story like this about colonialism from the voice of someone who would have been part of the oppressed, unlike most stories there are no saviors or heroes. Was this bit of history something you were familiar with? I know I spent like an hour online reading about it after I finished the film and was awestruck.
AISLING FRANCIOSI: To a certain extent. I have a relative who works a lot with Aboriginal communities, because unfortunately a lot of them still live in, in terrible poverty and you can see the ramifications of Colonialism years later. It’s still unfortunately very visible. So, I knew a little bit, just by my aunt, and I knew a certain amount about the convict’s history in Australia. But when I really started doing research, I’ll be honest by that I did not want to be ignorant Aboriginal history at all. I did look into that, but that was much closer to filming because I really wanted to get Clare into my skin before, you know, being kind of academic about the Aboriginal side of things. Because Clare, you know, she ignorant at the start of the film basically in regards to the Aboriginal people, and ton racism.
But the more I looked into how systematic, the sending of convicts to Australia I frankly was so furious, you know. Of course, they were terrible criminals who did get sent there. But there were also those who just committed petty survival crimes, stealing food to survive or clothing or whatever it was. Maybe it was only worth a two- or three-year sentence, but they got sent there and, the British knew that there was no way they would ever get home. They were sent to the other side of the world. So essentially, I think as well, when women and girls were sent to Tasmania it was, to essentially populate the island.
There was a ratio, and I think at one time it was something like crazy, like nine to one, men to women. And you can only imagine how horrific, a circumstance that is to arrive in, as a woman. They sent women there to fix the ratio and populate the island, but also, they sent the absolute worst criminals, the most dangerous ones. So, it was basically that combination making it the worst, hellish place to be. So yeah, it really fed into my anger when I kind of delved into the historical research.
PHAWKER: It’s hard not to see the obvious and very chilling echoes to the #MeToo movement here, but its feels very organic to Clare’s story. Do you feel like some of the reactions to the film might be because of its very real approach to what happens to Clare and how it eventually plays out?
AISLING FRANCIOSI: Yeah, definitely. I mean, our film is definitely confrontational. But I think that it should be. You know, I find it very fascinating particularly the human reaction to the violence to our film, because, there are plenty of very popular TV shows or films that are hyper violent, that don’t shy away from showing the gore. But they don’t show the human side, the human being that’s there behind it suffering frequently, obviously there are exceptions today.
Particularly with the sexual violence in this film I think we really wanted to focus on the fact that that rape is violence, first and foremost. We really wanted to get away from the sexual aspect of it, because it’s too easy then to attribute the shameful side of the conversation to it and when you put it in a sexual bracket, it just, it feels like it becomes harder to talk about. Rape is a violent act, the sexual part is the weapon and rape is like dominance and power and destruction and I’ve said this before, it’s no surprise that rape and war go hand in hand. It’s the fuel for domination, for power, for keeping the powerful in power. We really wanted to focus on the experience of the human being and the emotional intimacy. Obviously, there’s a physical trauma too, but it’s the emotional destruction of being raped.
I’m really interested because in people’s reaction to, because you rarely see two bodies in the frame, that it’s almost always on Clare’s face or Hawkins or Ruse’s face. I think that’s why people get quite angry about, it makes them feel uncomfortable feelings, because they’re forced to live it with Clare and in a very emotional way. Honestly, I feel like we show what it actually truly is, not the act, we see the emotional ramifications. But it’s interesting how people don’t want to feel those feelings. I understand that it, it’s hard to watch, but I think as Jen and I said before, if you can watch a rape scene on screen and not think twice about it or not feel that uncomfortable about it, it was probably filmed wrong, and it happens a lot.
I’m also reluctant to call the film a rape revenge movie, for many reasons. One is because I feel like in a lot of rape revenge movies, you have, the rape and then the woman just moves onto the revenge part and apart from anything it’s not just an isolated incident in a moment of time. Then you get over it, and move on to getting your revenge. You know, I think we show that with Clare. Women and men who are victims of sexual violence, of abuse, of trauma, they suffer post-traumatic stress disorder and in a big way, sometimes for life. It just shows the complexity of what someone goes through and I just don’t think that Clare is getting her revenge, just for the rape. She’s getting revenge because he took everything possible from her, her sense of self, for her family, her baby, her dreams, her future.
But I do think that it resonates even more because we are finally having discussions about abuse and the violence against the feminine and I think we have definitely touched on a nerve and the interesting thing is that we actually filmed this before the #metoo movent really kind of hit its stride. So, it’s been kind of fascinating, the conversations on both sides of the reactionary argument.
PHAWKER: A big part of the film is music since that’s the only way Billy and Clare can communicate in their native tongues, did have any say about the music in the film did it hold any special significance to you growing up in Ireland?
AISLING FRANCIOSI: Jen and I worked together in choosing the songs. There were a couple in there that she wanted specifically the one from the bar and Sheila Rune. But we kind of explored a couple of options together, you know, for the lullaby for example, or, the song that she’s singing to the soldiers. We obviously had to make sure that they were of the time because Jen wants to be accurate, as with everything. I found ones I liked singing more, and we tried a couple of different ones out to see whatever suited the scene best. I grew up singing, I’m not a Sean-nós singer, I don’t pretend to be. So Sean-nós is the traditional style of singing. It’s a really ancient kind of singing in Ireland and there are some amazing Sean-nós singers in Ireland.
Clare probably sang on the streets of Ireland when she was little just to get the money. She grew up very poor, probably committed a crime, that was just a survival crime and that’s what sent her to Australia. So, you know, there is documentation a lot of female convicts who when they were children, whether it be Scotland or Wales or whatever would, sing on the streets for a couple of coins, to get some money together. Jen didn’t want Clare to sound like she was, too polished, basically because she’s from a pretty rough background. One of the things about colonialism, obviously it happened in Ireland and they attempted to in Australia and Tasmania is, you know, they take away the language and, and the song and the culture. Unfortunately, in Ireland, I mean, we do still have people who speak Irish fluently and speak it every day on the west coast, but it’s largely, you know, people speak mostly English.
So, to a certain extent, we’ve lost the language, and music, frankly still continues to be a huge part of the culture in Ireland. But I just find it so interesting that at that moment when they’re talking about their identity, they feel compelled to sing in their language, in their music. I think, it just shows how important song and music are in our expression of identity and of where we come from and who we are. One other thing I love about it is that it shows that, it’s a common thread in their humanity, they don’t need to speak the same language, but it moves both of them, well, Clare pretends that she’s, annoyed by his singing. But really, I think she finds it fascinating and, and he certainly does with her and music, it’s such a universal human language, and so important in our expression.
I love that it’s such a common thread through the film. Even at the end, you know, when Billy finally comes home and he’s finally, you know, to a certain extent, got his vengeance. He’s saying, I’m still here and he sings and dances and it’s just a really powerful moment in the film.
PHAWKER: I wholeheartedly agree with that, did the character change much from when you signed on, I mean it feels meant to be not only are you Irish, but you speak Gaelic, and you’re also a trained singer?
AISLING FRANCIOSI: It did feel right. Interestingly I didn’t even think when I was reading the script, “Oh God, this is so perfect me because I’m Irish and I sing and I can speak Irish.” Those are kind of, I guess added extras that I thought might help. But really my reaction was just, “I’ll fight to the death for this one”, more so because of just the heart of the story and it was just such a powerful, powerful story.
Not just in terms of, you know, showing the history of convicts, particularly Irish convicts in Australia, it was more obviously the look at colonialism and how it affected the Aboriginal people, how awful the history Australia is, but also the thematic things that are still so relevant today. It just felt really weirdly parable on so many different levels that I thought I have to do this. Then thankfully I think, it probably did help that I speak Irish and sing in Irish and I’m Irish. So that was lucky.