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Five years after her much-lauded The Babadook, director Jennifer Kent has returned with The Nightingale, which tackles Australia’s brutal colonial history. She reveals what drew her to tell this story – and what she thinks of audience reactions to the film’s violence. “The whole point of The Nightingale is what happens when that rage winds down. What are you left with? That to me is the most interesting part of the story: what lies underneath it is a broken heart.” By Steve Dow.

Film director Jennifer Kent

Jennifer Kent.
Credit: Supplied

Silence is Jennifer Kent’s balm. She has spent about a year in Buddhist retreats over the course of her lifetime, refraining from speech for 15, 20 days at a time. She began this meditation well before she set about creating characters for her feature films – figures driven by grief, howling at the physical and psychological violence arrayed against them.

Horror is “very close to dream, and cinema really brings dream alive”, says the Brisbane-born actor-turned-director. The title of her first feature, The Babadook, released in 2014, came to her in a dream. Placing Essie Davis as the terrified mother Amelia in a horror genre gave licence to dreamlike abstractions, Kent says, more than would a literal story treatment of a woman who loses her husband and finds herself unable to connect with her son.

“I think grief is terrifying to people,” says Kent, reflecting on her debut feature. “We don’t want to feel grief, because it’s very painful. We’ll do anything we can to turn away from it.”

The Babadook was largely ignored by local moviegoers until international critical rhapsody placed it among cinematic horror masterpieces. Industry expectations were high that her second feature would be made in the same genre, while Davis turned down many horror films that were less well written.

Warner Bros flew Kent to the United States to consider follow-up projects, reportedly including Wonder Woman. But Kent says that superhero blockbuster “wasn’t discussed, because I didn’t show a lot of interest”.

“I am not trashing directors who make those films,” says Kent. “That would be entirely arrogant of me. I think it takes so long to make a film that you need to know what you love.”

Kent’s sophomore feature, The Nightingale, is a world away from a studio superhero tentpole. Set in 1825 and filmed in Tasmania’s Derwent Valley, the film reveals great beauty in the landscape and moments of tenderness, as its two lead characters quest to survive. But it is a brutal film. Here, horror has been replaced by an explicit naturalism.

Since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival last September, the film has been screened at both the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals, ahead of its national release. The film won The Age Critics Award in Melbourne, but at the Randwick Ritz screening in Sydney, a small group of audience members, angered by the film’s repeated physical violence, stormed noisily out of the cinema.

In The Nightingale, Irish-Italian actor Aisling Franciosi plays Clare, a 21-year-old Irish convict mother blessed with a nightingale-like voice, forced to sing a “good old British love song” to help British officers overcome homesickness. Their sense of ownership will soon be cruelly visited upon her.

Having lost those she loves, Clare teams up with an Indigenous Tasmanian, Billy, played by Baykali Ganambarr, a Galiwinku actor from Arnhem Land, who speaks of the frontier wars that are massacring his people. Bound by their common grief, he and Clare must move beyond mutual prejudice to seek their respective justice.

Billy’s totem is the black cockatoo, Mangana, a match to Clare’s nightingale voice. Both characters have been denied their own language and culture. Ganambarr as Billy speaks Palawa kani, a reconstructed language that did not exist in its current incarnation in the film’s epoch.

Speaking of her own heritage, Kent says it “is a very odd smorgasbord, mainly Celtic and some English, so I hate myself.” She fires off a loud laugh. When we meet, her red hair is piled high and she’s wrapped in an emerald green cardigan, perhaps an echo of her own Irish paternal great-grandmother, or maybe her Scottish maternal grandfather. Her family history, apparently, harbours no convicts.

Profound loss triggered Kent to write The Nightingale. Her mother, Joan, died in 2015, and Kent also lost a young nephew, both of which “put me in a space where I really think deeply about the nature of life”, she says.

Kent was also “disturbed by violence on TV and throughout the world and I wanted to talk about the nature of violence and ask: Is it possible to rise above and focus on love and kindness and empathy in dark times?

“I wanted to tell a story that is relevant to my history and my country. So the ideas dripped through [about a] convict woman and I [also] couldn’t not tell a story of Aboriginal people in that time, having chosen that period in our history.”

Kent had visited Richmond Gaol north of Hobart, built in 1825, where a female solitary cell measuring two metres by one metre would be used to plunge its inhabitant into cold, dark sensory deprivation for up to three weeks at a time.

“They would be sent back to their masters and commit a crime so that they could be brought back to solitary confinement. I thought: ‘What was happening in those homes or workplaces for those women to feel so desperate to get away?’ I think it was about possession. There was a lot of sexual abuse.”

Although some critics and audience members have reduced the film to its violence – at times responding to the work with anger – Kent says, “The whole point of The Nightingale is what happens when that rage winds down. What are you left with? That to me is the most interesting part of the story: what lies underneath it is a broken heart.

“So, when people refer to it as a ‘rape revenge’ film, I take great umbrage to that. It has revenge in it, it has rape in it, but it is not a rape revenge film. Those films are very exploitative, usually, and glorify violence and are always seen through a masculine lens.”

 

Growing up with four siblings and their civil servant father, Neal, whose nickname was “Transport”, and homemaker Joan in suburban Corinda, south-west of Brisbane, Jenny Kent directed plays as a child – some she wrote, while others were borrowed from the library.

Making plays was “possibly” a way of getting noticed as the youngest child, says Kent. “But it was also my way of processing something deeper. Other people had church – I had plays; I had storytelling. I’ve always felt, even as a child, I was dropped on earth to tell stories.”

Kent remembers being obsessed with 1940s and ’50s American comic film characters Ma and Pa Kettle, in an uncanny echo of Queensland’s longest-serving premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who was dubbed the “hillbilly dictator” because of his government’s grip on the state.

“Dad was a big Labor man and worked really hard,” Kent recalls. “We didn’t have a lot, and there were seven of us, [but] my dad was very determined to make a good family because he grew up in the war and had a very hard life.”

Kent’s mother would watch old movies with her, pointing out Tyrone Power or Hedy Lamarr. “I developed a love of her fascination for old Hollywood.” Joan’s broader influence is clear: she was “very loving, very empathetic, almost to a fault, and so I always prized those qualities highly”, says Kent.

“I feel it in the world [today]: we’re in a very dark time, and empathy is shrinking. I know we all romanticise our childhood, and have a nostalgia for it, but I think those were the things that were placed in my system as being incredibly important.”

Her brother became a doctor, two sisters became nurses and another sister a teacher, but Kent aimed to study at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney, even though her father feared for her financial security: “And with good reason, I mean it’s not been an easy career, that’s for sure ... it was pretty dire for a long time...”

At NIDA, Kent was told to choose: act or write. “So I dropped all my writing and directing,” she says. “I went in my first year directing a piece, but was quickly told, ‘Don’t do that.’”

Having studied Chekhov and Ibsen while earning an associate diploma in arts and theatre at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Kent developed a love of plays.

She remains proud of her two travelling stage roles for Bell Shakespeare in 1995, of which one Sydney reviewer noted: “Jennifer Kent’s Thaisa [in Pericles] has touches of her witty and knowing Olivia in Twelfth Night, and is none the worse for that”. Her agent advised her to change her name from Jenny to the more formal Jennifer so that she would be taken seriously in the industry.

Kent quickly grew bored with telling other people’s stories, particularly on television: her first TV role had been a one-off appearance in A Country Practice, in 1992, followed by continuing roles in The New Adventures of Black Beauty and Murder Call and a few episodes of All Saints. One of these roles waylaid Kent’s enrolment in a course to study Chinese herbal medicine. “Thankfully so,” she reflects, “because it wasn’t my path.”

Kent saw and was inspired by Thomas Vinterberg’s film Festen, also known as The Celebration, released in 1998, and thought it was a masterpiece. Then came Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark in 2000, which she says “wholly moved me and shook me up ... I thought, ‘What are the Danes doing?’”

Kent wrote a “bolshie” letter to von Trier, saying, “I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than go to film school” as a pretext to requesting she be allowed to visit his set while he was making Dogville in Sweden in 2001.

Kent’s boyfriend at the time humoured her, but she believes he was of the opinion von Trier would never agree to let her come. Of course, the director did.

“I did a lot of menial tasks. I drove actors around in exchange for watching Lars work. Because I had no experience; I hadn’t even made a short. I became the resident shitkicker or snow shoveller deep in a Swedish winter.”

On the long road to making her own features, Kent was mostly able to support herself financially, with her parents helping when they could, but artistic compromises were necessary.

“I could really only make The Babadook because I was writing and directing corporate videos,” she says. “I could earn enough in a day to last me the rest of the week.”

The Nightingale has been some time in the making. Kent knew it was essential to get the voices right. Baykali Ganambarr spent time with Tasmanian Aboriginal people, shaping his rendering of the character of Billy. Jim Everett, an elder of the Plangermairreenner clan of the Ben Lomond people of north-east Tasmania, was crucial to getting Indigenous cultural detail correct.

“Without him, the film simply would not exist,” says Kent. “One of the most beautiful things in the very long and arduous journey of this film was turning to him at the festival screening in Venice and seeing his face. He said afterwards, ‘This is a story that’s never been told of our people’, and I felt a great sadness but also a great pride.”

Kent’s Venice screening made headlines when an Italian journalist sprang up during the film and yelled “whore”. She is magnanimous in her response: “I had compassion for him. It genuinely had no impact [on me].”

At Venice, Kent was the only female director in competition. The festival, she says, was “the first time in my life the experience of being reduced to a gender”.

“It wasn’t an honour to be the only woman, it was a sadness, and I look forward to the time where we are just artists, all together, expressing our personal views about the world, one element of which being our sexuality or our gender.”

Kent’s next film, Alice + Freda Forever, a “beautiful, sad story” based on the true lives of two lesbians in Memphis in the 1890s, will go into production in the United States later this year or early next year.

When she speaks of such characters transcending fear, possessions or themselves to attain love in various forms, her time in silent meditation and interest is most visible.

“I now do a form of Vedic meditation which is really my anchor through the world,” she says. “I can’t imagine life without some sort of self-reflection and meditative existence because it’s a crazy world out there.”

Words such as “love, empathy, compassion and kindness” may be regarded as “light and fluffy”, says Kent, yet they are critical: “These are, for me, our lifeline. Without these things, we cease to be human.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 24, 2019 as "Kent credence". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.