The phrase “it takes a strong stomach” has been applied to many films throughout cinema history — such as Requiem for a Dream, Salò or any Lars von Trier work. But Jennifer Kent’s dramatic follow-up to her 2014 horror film The Babadook, titled The Nightingale, is one where said strong stomach would be asked to endure scenes where you are witnessing someone’s soul being destroyed.
Within the first fraction of The Nightingale is a sequence involving the brutal rape of a woman. It sets the tone for the story’s depictions of ghastly violence in 1825 Tasmania during the Black Wars.
Inside a starkly-lit room, an Irish convict servant named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is cornered by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin), who is trying to work his way up the ranks in the British Army. Clare tries to free herself from his grasp, crying out for her baby daughter. Rather than widen out the frame and focus on the act in all its disturbing nature, Kent narrows in on Clare’s face to capture the character’s transition from fear to pain and hopelessly-numb emptiness.
The scene and the emotional journey that follows is perhaps not the most ideal way to spend a Friday night at the movies. Filmgoers chasing pure escapism won’t find it in The Nightingale. Kent’s film is both masterfully crafted and incredibly difficult to subject yourself to. If you’ve already checked out, I don’t blame you. Lead actor Aisling Franciosi (Game of Thrones and The Fall) wouldn’t blame your disinterest either.
“I love entertainment and escapist movies, but when I come out of something that makes me feel something, those are the rewarding experiences,” Franciosi said during a phone interview. “Even though the feelings aren’t the most pleasant, when I am forced to think about something for days and ruminate on it a lot, I love that I am provoked into feeling empathy, sympathy or horror not for just the moment that I am watching but in the time after that.”
When reading Kent’s screenplay — which centers on Clare chasing her offenders through the rugged Tasmanian wilderness alongside an Aboriginal tracker (Baykali Ganambarr), who is also marked by trauma — Franciosi was taken by its real look at our humanity, and why we are so frequently compelled to destroy that in one another.
“Clare experiences so much horror, tragedy, and trauma in her life. I knew that I would have to, very often, be in a fragile and emotional state of mind. The time it takes to allow all these feelings to seep into Clare, she needs to sprint from one place to the next and not stop,” Franciosi said.
The film’s talent regularly worked with clinical psychologist Elaine Barrett during the development stage. Kent also had worked with Barrett and other advisors during the scriptwriting phase to make sure the story accurately portrays the emotions of being in such a relentless situation.
“I talked to [Barrett] a lot during my prep. It’s interesting because she told me if Clare stops for too long to feel what she’s been through, she will crumble. She needed to be driven by this need to keep going; otherwise, she will not survive,” Franciosi said.
However, the film does pump the breaks every now and then. It’s in those quiet moments of reflection that we start to feel the ramifications of what Clare has been through.
One scene toward the film’s conclusion significantly highlights this notion. In the scene, we see Clare in an exhausted and delusional state, slowly spinning around a dark forest alone. She begins to see horrifying images in supernatural fashion. It’s when audiences see the strengths that Kent displayed previously in The Babadook take form, resulting in a more haunting sequence.
“Clare is living a horror,” Franciosi exclaimed. “It’s incredible how Kent allows those moments to happen. People with [post-traumatic stress disorder] have horrendous nightmares and out of body experiences. Even though [those visions] are horror-like and terrifying, they are also what it feels like to be what Clare is experiencing.”
As anyone could probably imagine, enveloping oneself into an emotional-draining story takes a toll. The Nightingale required a lot of careful planning and activities of decompression for the actors and filmmakers to maintain their own grip on reality. Fortunately for Franciosi, Kent and her co-stars provided the trust and support needed for her to reach the dramatic levels needed without them consuming her.
“I had conversations with Kent before we started shooting about whether or not I should keep a distant dynamic between [Claflin and Damon Herriman, who play the vile British soldier characters who attacked her.] But as soon as we started diving into workshopping some of the material we realized, ‘OK, no. It has to be the total opposite.’ I think that you can’t really put yourself in a vulnerable place when you don’t trust the other person. We had to become very close,” Franciosi said.
Among the many takeaways that Franciosi latched onto while making the film, is how much it taught her about patience. She auditioned for the role of Clare over three-and-a-half years ago. Between getting the part and filming, it was nine months. Between filming and premiering the film in Venice, it was a year. And between the film’s premiere and now, it has been almost another year.
However, the essential lesson for Franciosi was detaching herself from audiences’ reactions.
“I don’t find myself feeling personally upset when an audience member says they didn’t like the film. I wholeheartedly believe in this film, and I think it was a real gift,” Franciosi declared. “It’s liberating not to be worrying about what people think of it.”
Franciosi shared an experience she had over a month ago when screening the film. At the event, she noticed the film’s sexual violence didn’t sit well with some viewers. She said you can’t expect people to sit through something too much for them. At the same time, Franciosi and Kent were applauded by others who related to the experience.
“I had a woman who came up to me at that screening. She was a victim of sexual violence, and she told me that she felt understood. That, for me, was mind-blowing. A film can have such varying effects on people, and it’s powerful,” Franciosi said.
By no means does The Nightingale sing a comforting tune. The emotional severity is overwhelmingly wrecking, due in no small part to the raw intensity of Franciosi’s work on screen. But as Franciosi mentioned, it’s an unforgettable experience. Just as Clare goes on a life-altering journey, the audience follows suit.
The Nightingale opens Friday at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas and Plano.