‘The Babadook’ director Jennifer Kent tackles violence, misogyny and racism in ‘The Nightingale’

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Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent has quickly emerged as someone able to balance a dark intensity with an emotional earnestness, creating movies that are both shocking and moving. Her debut feature, 2014’s “The Babadook,” launched its title creature into the popular imagination and is already widely considered among the best contemporary horror films. Her second feature, “The Nightingale,” now in theaters, has generated controversy and conversation ever since its premiere at last year’s Venice Film Festival, where it won two prizes.

“The Nightingale” is set in Tasmania in 1825, where Clare (Aisling Franciosi), a young Irish convict, is desperate to be free from Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), the cruel soldier she works under. Hawkins and a few of his men leave their post after inflicting unspeakable crimes and harrowing abuse on Clare. She decides to pursue them and reluctantly hires an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), setting off through an unforgiving terrain. Clare and Billy must overcome their own suspicions and misconceptions about each other on their way to a shared trust and understanding.

The film’s extreme depictions of rape and other violence — the press notes warn that the film “features potentially triggering acts of sexual violence toward women, violence toward children, and violence motivated by racism” — have been a flashpoint. After one screening of “The Nightingale” in Venice, an Italian journalist shouted “whore” when Kent’s name appeared during the end credits. Then it was reported that there were numerous walkouts when the film played at the Sydney Film Festival in June.

Yet the payoff the movie provides is more than worth the challenge of getting through its most difficult moments. As Times critic Justin Chang wrote, “The conventions of the revenge thriller are somehow both cannily fulfilled and skillfully subverted, but ‘The Nightingale’ has more on its mind than an exercise in genre. This is a profound and difficult film, an attempt to grapple with the existence and mindless perpetuation of evil, and to suggest both the fleeting satisfaction and the eternal futility of vengeance. Nothing about it is easy, and everything it shows us matters.”

Kent spoke about the film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and also recently sat for an interview in Los Angeles. The following is edited excerpts from both conversations.

Q: It’s been almost a year since “The Nightingale” premiered. How do you feel about the response?

A: It’s been incredible and tough and all sorts of things. It’s been such a wonderful experience to have people so moved by the film. It’s been classed as controversial, and it’s a war film. Not very nice things happen in war. I think we haven’t learned much by turning away from others’ suffering. So I feel very proud of the film. It took a lot for us to make it, and a year on, I feel proud of its trajectory so far.

Q: In particular, there were reports of mass walkouts when the film recently played at the Sydney Film Festival. Were you there for that?

A: I was and it wasn’t as reported, surprise, surprise. It was pretty much gutter journalism. What I know of, because I was in the foyer, there was one woman who was very vocal and I don’t know the reasons for that. I think that’s good that she removed herself. But there wasn’t mass walk outs. It just didn’t happen.

Q: When you were at the Venice Film Festival last year, you were the only female filmmaker in the competition and had to answer a lot of questions about that. Are you comfortable being put in this position as some kind of spokesperson?

A: No, I’m not. I’m a very private person. I’m an introverted person. I don’t like being in the public eye. I love putting everything I have into my stories. But that was a really unusual and quite distressing experience. I mean, not to be called a whore, I don’t care about that, but to kind of have to stand up for all of womankind, I can’t do that. I’m a filmmaker and I’d rather just be known as a filmmaker. I’d rather my films be known and I don’t care to be on public platforms trying to represent the whole of womankind. It was surreal.

But I think as a filmmaker, if you’re going to go to a place that’s challenging and you’re going to provoke people, then you have to expect something back and you have to just hold that. I see it as a social experiment. I think, “Oh, how interesting.” Sometimes it gets to me but most of the time you just have to let it go.

Q: Did you ever have a concern, especially with the early scenes in the movie, that it would be too intense?

A: No. It’s the film that it is, it’s a war story. Look at the beginning of “Saving Private Ryan” — is anyone saying, “Oh, that’s too intense”? No, it’s a war. Someone’s there and then the next minute, their head’s blown off. This is the truth of war.

(In “The Nightingale”) I think the difference is it’s seen from a woman’s perspective, it’s very different. But sexual violence and violence toward children and women and old people and the vulnerable is a result of a war mentality. I (wanted) to explore a film about the necessity of love in very dark times. And so I had to show those very dark times and they are historically real. It’s not like I’m making it up for the sake of being provocative. It’s my history. I wanted to own that. … I’m Australian whether my ancestors were directly involved or not. It’s a blind spot in Australia and I would have done it no favors by softening that history.

Q: You’ve said you don’t see this as a revenge film. How so?

A: Well, I see it as a film about love. I see revenge as a part of that, that is thwarted. For me, a revenge film is like “I Spit on Your Grave” or “The Last House on the Left,” and these are films that deal with revenge and only revenge. That part of the story, it’s not edifying, it plays out in a way that I feel is more true to what I wanted to say within the piece. And that sort of burns itself out halfway through the film. And then what’s underneath that is what really interests me.

What’s underneath that enormous rage, and justifiable rage. And how does a person come back from that? How do they remain a human being? How can I look another human being in the eyes with love? And without spoiling it for an audience who hasn’t seen it, that scene on the beach at the end … that to me is a miracle, that people can go through these things and still love.

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