Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is a film that holds the viewer hostage and forces you to watch something so fundamentally evil that it’s hard to keep your eyes on the screen. Kent challenges us to question our own relationship to the traditional rape-revenge narrative.

The Nightingale brings one Irish woman’s worst nightmare to the big screen. Set in the Australian outback of the 1800s, the film follows Clare’s (Aisling Franciosi) revenge story after a brutal rape.

Can you watch something this violent and evil?

For decades, horror films directed by men have used a similar narrative, the rape of a woman, as an excuse for gore. Films such as The Last House On The Left (1972), I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and Ms. 45 (1981) are classics of the genre and are often viewed as a rite of passage, after which there is no return to popcorn horror. Sexual violence towards women is represented as some sort of a challenge, a spectacle. Can you watch something this violent and evil?

The Nightingale isn’t interested in revenge as a spectacle. It portrays director Jennifer Kent’s homeland Australia and its ugly history from the perspective of the marginalised: women and Aboriginal people. Kent takes back the narrative and turns her gaze towards the victim’s internal struggle. At the same time, the film confronts our need to experience revenge and its ethical consequences.

Kent invites the audience to experience, share and process their own trauma by complicating the traditional revenge story.

In Kent’s hands, rape becomes a collective trauma, which unites women on screen and in the cinema. It becomes a symbol for discrimination and inequality. Clare’s journey towards personal redemption is full of morally grey area. Kent invites the audience to experience, share and process their own trauma by complicating the traditional revenge story.

The Nightingale isn’t an easy viewing and the ending isn’t a rewarding one, neither for Clare nor the audience. Why should it be? Why have we deserved to experience happiness or satisfaction from violence that stems from sexual violence?

Jennifer Kent subtly changes our relationship to revenge films and the portrayal of sexual violence. The Nightingale is an exhausting and difficult film, but an important one.

Text and translation: Maria Lättilä