Forgiveness is overrated. Understanding is not. And, there’s much to understand in Jennifer Kent’s riveting, violently troubling, and powerful new film, The Nightingale; about trauma, PTSD, unbearable grief, and the sometimes unimaginable sources of empathy. No, no one should ever be expected to forgive their abusers. “Forgiveness” for sadistic cruelty isn’t healing. What helps is for the most horrific kind of terror, pain, and loss to be truly understood in the eyes of another. This is exactly what The Nightingale shows us through Kent’s vision and in the parallel stories of Clare and Billy, a young Irish White woman and her Aboriginal tracker/guide. Two people so seemingly different, yet more the same than either can initially fathom.
The Nightingale’s Story
The Nightingale begins with the story of Lieutenant Hawkins’s (Sam Claflin) entitled “ownership” of Clare (Aisling Fraciosi), our nightingale. He won’t let her free. She was sent to the penal colony to serve a term for petty theft, a term she’s completed long ago. But, he must see her as his property.
He’ll have his way with her (brutal rape is the real term) whenever he chooses, forces her to sing with her gorgeous nightingale voice. He treats her cruelly and sadistically. His unconscious reasons for this are complicated. I’ll get to those.
Clare is Irish and Hawkins, English. Part of this story is the war between Britain and Ireland. Part is the parallel mistreatment of the Aboriginals – not different at all from the way Blacks are treated in our country. Another war.
Kent tells us a story of hate. Hate is toxic. We see it clearly in Hawkins.
He’s “allowed” Clare to marry Aidan (Michael Sheasby), a fellow prisoner. To give birth to their baby. But, he won’t give her the necessary (and earned) papers to freedom.
He can’t. Because he needs her.
Why he needs her is a critical part of the story of hate. He needs her because he can’t stand his own feelings. Clare will feel them instead.
But, there’s much more to the story than that. The Nightingale tells us also about trauma and PTSD, revenge on the way to grieving, and the healing power of empathy.
The Why’s Of Hate & Racism
We see it today. Hate is everywhere. It always has been. In The Nightingale, Jennifer Kent brings us to our knees and takes us into the emotional trauma that hate brings. We live it. Feel every moment. Reverberating in our bodies and our psyches.
I heard Kent speak in a Q&A after a screening of The Nightingale. This story is the story of her country, of Australia, Tasmania, the brutality of the British against the Aboriginals and the Irish. This is a story she had to tell. A story people don’t want to think about. But, one we must know. Because it’s the story of hate. Murderous hate.
The Nightingale is also a story of the function of hate. The ways that hated people come to “hold” what is hated in the hater. This is Hawkins’s with Clare. It’s the White’s projection into the Aboriginals. The function is: getting rid of what is hated in oneself.
The way hate’s gotten rid of is, technically, called projection. Projection means that all the intolerable feelings – what is hated inside oneself – are rejected from awareness, a target is found, and that target is another person or race.
Targets are people who function as “hooks” for projections. For justifications of reasons to hate. That is, to be assured that what is “out there” is “not a part of me.”
We see that story in Lieutenant Hawkins.
Lieutenant Hawkin’s Projection Into Clare
Lieutenant Hawkins needs a hook for his unbearable feelings. The way he feels trapped, uncertain of his value, and therefore, inferior.
Yes, he feels inferior. Surprised? Don’t be. It’s there. His arrogant behavior is just designed to mask it. Yet, we see it in subtle ways, if we look below the surface.
He was supposed to be at his post for one year; it’s been three instead. Not advanced to the higher position he expected. This makes him insecure. And, angrily slighted. It’s why he keeps Clare longer than her sentence.
Jennifer Kent wants to show the reasons men rape. The reasons for cruelty. What is hidden inside and taken out on the victim. There’s no excuse for it, of course. But, we can understand the human experience hidden beneath the cruelty.
Hawkins refuses to feel bad about himself. He’s killed his feelings. He won’t feel inferior, he won’t feel trapped and afraid. Clare will.
He’ll be the one in control, not helpless to his superiors. He’ll be the superior one. Clare will carry all the trapped feelings, not the Lieutenant.
Yet, he is also desperate for love. To have someone adore and look up to him. What his lack of advancement (and likely some early trauma) leave him without.
So, he makes Clare sing a love song just for him. But he doesn’t generate love, of course. And, he’s far from a loving man. He doesn’t love anyone – except for himself; in his narcissistic over self-evaluation. Another way to deflect those inferior feelings.
And, he hates Clare for the love she has and gives to anyone else; her husband and baby. He can’t allow it. And, he takes everything away from her with murder and rape.
Rage Before Feeling Grief
The Lieutenant rapes Clare as her husband watches helplessly. Aidan’s tried to stand up to Hawkins in an attempt to get them free. The Lieutenant will show him who’s boss. When the enraged Aidan comes to Clare’s defense, Hawkins viciously kills him.
Clare can do nothing. Can’t reach her hungry and crying baby to feed her. And, when the baby won’t stop crying, another one of Hawkins’s mates kills Clare’s little girl.
Now Lieutenant Hawkins has taken everyone Clare loves and needs. A fierce wall of fury, rage, hate and determined revenge erects a wall against her grief.
Clare feels nothing else. She can’t.
Only revenge is on her mind. She’ll go after Hawkins. Track him down. But, as she starts to charge off, she’s warned not to go through the jungle alone. It’s dangerous. She doesn’t care. She has Aidan’s horse. All she has left.
The first feeling in grieving is often anger. In Clare, with the multiple traumas of loss and sexual violation, it turns to rage.
Yet, she does heed the warning of friends. She wants to get Hawkins, after all. So, she agrees to take an Aboriginal tracker named Billy (Baykali Gamanbarr) along as her guide.
Billy, at first, becomes the recipient of Clare’s own projection of helplessness in being controlled. She superiorly calls him “boy” and verbally pushes him around.
Billy won’t allow it, though. He has his own history of trauma. And, also, anger and pride. Both are wary of the other. And, it will take them some time to feel grief.
Trauma & PTSD’s Numbing Power
Numbing is typical of trauma. In professional jargon, it’s called dissociation; a method of detachment from overwhelming feelings when there’s no other way to cope.
Clare is in a state of numbness when she finally tracks down Hawkins, confronts him, and exposes his crimes at a table of his superiors: “I died when you killed my husband and my baby. You can’t kill someone who is already dead.”
Yes, she’s dead. Sort of. Yet, no traumatized soul is ever truly dead. Trauma returns in flashbacks as she and Billy make their way through the wilderness – of Tasmania, grief, and trying to trust someone different and too easily misunderstood.
The Nightingale takes us with them. At first, they’re enemies. Aboriginal versus White. But, then Billy realizes she’s Irish, not British White. Persecuted too. That helps.
It takes a very long time for them to see they aren’t so different at all. Each has had everyone and everything taken by those that live in hate.
In dreams and flashbacks and visions – Aiden and Clare’s baby come back at first as reassuring presences and then as memories of horror. A murdered face. Pure loss.
Losses she was helpless to stop. These flashbacks torture, but they are reminders that grief is not so far behind. Or hidden.
Yet, to really grieve, the numbing and dissociation of trauma must give way, allowing the shutdown feelings to awaken. Billy’s grief helps.
His sadness merges with Clare’s when Hawkins’s crew murders Billy’s friend, their elderly tracker, Billy’s chosen family after he’s been separated from his own.
Now both Billy and Clare have reasons to bring Hawkins to justice. They’re the same. And, in this, they find compassion for another who seems different but is not.
The Healing Power Of Empathy
Without empathy, no one can easily grieve. That is too hard and lonely. Clare and Billy have no one else out there in the jungle of loss. And, they slowly forge a path to trust.
There’s brutality in The Nightingale. Yet, in the midst of hate, also unexpected kindness.
A woman in a horse-drawn carriage takes pity on the exhausted, alone, and depleted Clare, separated from Billy – and lets her hitch a ride.
An old White man in his horse-drawn cart takes them to his house. Feeds them, insists (against the will of his wife) that the Aboriginal Billy join them at their table.
Billy does. And, Billy sobs. Clare sees his humanity. Identifies with his loss. Knows him through his grief.
Kindness offers a place for grief to be felt. To let someone in when no one feels safe, that’s the beginning of healing.
And, for Clare and Billy – it means to be seen in the eyes of another. Truly known. That’s empathy. To find a commonality. Especially in suffering.
In The Nightingale, Jennifer Kent shows us what overturns hate: kindness and empathy towards those different than us but in their essences the same.
This Clare and Billy find. A deep understanding that reverses helplessness and fear: “You don’t own me. I belong to myself.” Clare can finally say to Hawkins.
As a large sun rises over the water, there’s freedom in the recognition of a common grief. Grief shared is much easier than traveling the barren world of loss alone.