After a long period in which it has almost appeared unfashionable to do so, film-makers have recently returned to exploring the legacies of colonial Australia. The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce (2008) and Van Diemen’s Land (2009) told the story of escapees from the Macquarie Harbour penal station forced into cannibalism to survive; The Outlaw Michael Howe (2013) explored the life of the infamous bushranger; while the glossy Banished(2015) transformed the early settlement of New South Wales into a soap opera.
While some of the above films and miniseries can seem oddly bloodless, this is not a criticism that can be levelled at Jennifer Kent’s important new film, The Nightingale, which is unsparing and disturbing—though not gratuitously so—in its depiction of the violence of colonialism. Set in 1825, the events of The Nightingale occur during a crucial period in the history of Van Diemen’s Land (modern-day Tasmania). Around this time, thanks a reorganisation of the convict system ordered by London, what the historian James Boyce described as the ‘pre-industrial society’ of Van Diemen’s Landbegan to give way to society which had a ruling class structure imposed upon it, and where vast estates were granted to free settlers. This instigated the systematic dispossession of the Indigenous Tasmanians and the so-called ‘Black War’ of 1825-32, where officially-sanctioned and paramilitary groups mounted attacks on Aboriginal people.
The Nightingale is particularly welcome in two respects. First, it centres the experience of a woman convict and her place in a society where women were so heavily outnumbered by mean, and examines this invidious position. Second, the film’s portrayal of the near destruction of Aboriginal Tasmanian society, and Billy’s moving defiance in the face of it, is extremely well done—no doubt owing in great part to Kent and her team’s detailed consultation with the local community. There are some issues with The Nightingale, as Larissa Behrendt has argued, such as the ‘perfunctory’ treatment of Lowanna, the only Aboriginal woman to feature in the film. Behrendt also notes that the conflation of the Irish convict and Indigenous Tasmanian experience fails to take into account the relative power dynamics between Clare and Billy—and those of their respective communities—which remains one of the coloniser and the colonised.
Nevertheless, The Nightingale remains a powerful and important evocation of colonial Australia, and of the impact of colonisation more generally. Historically and culturally informed, there is an authenticity to the film, whether that it is in the use of the reconstructed Indigenous language, or the ragged uniforms of a garrison at the very edge of the British Empire. The Nightingale may have been filmed in Tasmania, but what is seen on screen is very definitely Van Diemen’s Land. This is a work which deserves as wide an audience as possible, and the issues it raises are sure to be debated for some time to come.
IN CINEMAS NOW!
“A powerful evocation of colonial Australia.” Dr. Tim Causer
“Not for the faint-hearted — and even the tough-hearted might struggle in a few places. But this uncompromising, unflinching meditation on violence should be seen as widely as possible.” Empire