As Australian audiences brace themselves for Quentin Tarantino’s latest exploration of gratuitous violence, bear in mind that Australia’s own dark side will be on view in cinemas from August 29th “ in ‘The Nightingale’.
Such a sweet bird! But Jennifer (‘The Babadook‘) Kent’s attachment of that soubriquet to the Irish lass, Clare, played by Aisling Franciosi (of ‘The Fall’ and ‘Game of Thrones‘ fame), relates only to her sweet singing voice, not to her much tougher character. But then, who’d not be toughened by multiple rapes followed by the death of her husband and the bashing out of her baby’s brains?
And who might be responsible for this extreme violence? The Blacks??? For the film is set in Van Dieman’s Land (as Tasmania was then known) in 1825, just a year after the Black War had commenced.
No, it wasn’t Tasmania’s Palawa First People.
A little history, from Nicholas Clements, Honorary Research Associate at the University of Tasmania in ‘The Conversation‘:
Tasmania’s Black War (1824-31) was the most intense frontier conflict in Australia’s history. It was a clash between the most culturally and technologically dissimilar humans to have ever come into contact. At stake was nothing less than control of the country, and the survival of a people.
“Around 1000 lives were lost, but the loss of cultures and histories was far costlier. Aboriginal war parties torched dozens of properties, plundered hundreds of homes and speared thousands of sheep and cattle. Even more devastating was the human toll: 223 colonists killed and 226 wounded.
Colonial forces played a significant role in the frontier conflict, which culminated in 1830 with the Black Line “ the largest domestic offensive in Australia’s history. This ambitious seven-week operation involved 550 soldiers and 1,650 settlers and convicts “ fully 10% of the colony’s population. And it resulted in only 200 or so Aboriginal survivors, exiled to Flinders Island in the early 1830s, who lost nearly everyone they knew, together with their country and their way of life.
Kent, who both wrote and directed ‘The Nightingale’, has researched well. And she’s brought on board the Palawa elder, Uncle Jim Everett “ still living on the Bass Strait island where his ancestors were exiled. It’s just possible that even more important was Theresa Sainty, who is credited as Palawa language coach. Given the sad absence of full-blood Palawa on today’s Tassie, the three major Indigenous characters in the film are imported “ two Yolngu from Arnhemland and one Desert man. One of the Yolngu, Baykali Ganambarr from Elcho Island, playing the co-starring role of Billy, won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Young Performer at the Venice Film Festival in 2018. He’d never acted before! Though he is a member of that amazing dance group, Djuki Mala so knows just a bit about performing.
The importance of Billy “ who calls himself (and dances) Mangana, the Black Cockatoo “ is that he’s almost as detribalised as Clare. For his Letteremairrener clan of the Palawa has been wiped out while he was enslaved by the Brits, also learning very colourful English. Clare selects him to guide her on a vengeance mission to Launceston (which gets its original Cornish pronunciation in the film, just two syllables) and their initial hostility to each other turns to teamwork over many a violent adventure in the soggy and fearful Tassy bush when he realises that the Irish are as much a colonised people as himself. And she can match his Palawa with her Gaelic.
For the 21-year-old Clare’s seven years transportation was spent in thrall to Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin of ‘The Hunger Games’), a Brit who’s in charge of a small army garrison, but being denied advancement because his lower-middle-class background fails the ‘officer class’ test. He has to rush to Launceston to put up his hand for promotion before reports of his brutality get there. He picks Billy’s uncle Charlie (played by a wily Charlie Jampijinpa Brown) as his guide. Also in his party is Sgt Ruse, played by Damon Harriman (who “ no coincidence “ appears as Charles Manson in Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’). He’s evil incarnate, especially when drunk, compared to Hawkins’s tendency to lose his cool and shoot someone only when flustered.
The third soldier on this trip is the indeterminate Ensign Jago (played by Aussie Harry Greenwood) who’s different again. Basically decent, but it’s him who bashes Clare’s baby’s brains out under stress from its ceaseless crying and Hawkin’s consequent loss of cool as he rapes Clare. So it’s no surprise that Clare wreaks her revenge on him first “ he’s been wounded by a Palawa spear in the thigh – and finds herself quite carried away by her fury.
Billy can’t believe this excess “ though, oddly, he later tells her that in Aboriginal lore, We don’t fix bad bastards; we kill ’em. He’s obviously never caught sight of Governor Davey’s weird Proclamation at that time which illustrates British justice by showing the hanging of both Black and White miscreants who kill anyone.
Two of the other discomforting queries I have about the film is the moment when Billy/Mangana finds his Uncle dead and cries out Charlie when surely he’d have used his Palawa name. And the poster for the film shows the blood-stained face of a hollow-eyed Aisling Franciosi peering through the wings of an angry raven. Some mistake; for it really should have featured the far more significant black cockatoo, which Billy has explained is his totem, with the power to lead you to safety “ as it does for Clare.
These issues do raise the question “ which I’m sure an Indigenous film-maker like Rachel Perkins is already asking “ as to whether a non-Indigenous director such as Jennifer Kent can really go on to make features with such a significant First Nations content?