The Nightingale is ferociously good and for a second feature utterly remarkable. Writer-director Jennifer Kent had a career as an actor in Australian film and TV before making her stunning début film The Babadook (Australia 2014). That made her a name to watch and The Nightingale won the Special Jury Prize in Venice in 2018. Since then, despite strong word of mouth it has taken over a year to get a UK release and hasn’t figured as much in the recent discussions about ‘year’s best’ lists as it deserves. I can only think that the subject matter and the film’s brutal honesty have put some people off. It is matched only by Atlantique in my film viewing in 2019.
In 1825, the year that Van Diemen’s Land became an official British colony, a young Irish woman named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is desperately seeking her freedom. She has worked for long enough as a convict to be released as a free woman to join her husband (also Irish and a ‘freed’ convict) and infant. But Lieutenant Hawkins has been abusing her and treating her like his play-thing and he refuses to sign her release papers so she must continue in servitude. When Hawkins is visited by a senior officer, who finds the Lieutenant’s general behaviour shocking, all hell breaks out. A drunken Hawkins and his henchmen, Sergeant Ruse and the reluctant Ensign Jago, attack Clare and her family. Hawkins decides to march across wild open country to confront his superiors in Launceston and regain their trust. The three soldiers are joined by some convicts as porters and an Aboriginal tracker. Clare, as an unlikely survivor of the attack, sets out in pursuit with her own tracker. This is the period of the so-called ‘Black War’ with the Indigenous people of the island fighting back against the European colonisers in a form of guerrilla war.
Clare seeks revenge. I haven’t described what has happened to her, but the film is extremely brutal (18 Certificate). The ‘Black War’ was a time of genocide or, euphemistically, ‘ethnic cleansing’. The number of men in the colony greatly outweighed the number of women (white and black combined). It takes time for Clare, a Gaelic-speaking Irish woman, and Billy, the young Indigenous man, to realise that they are united against the British. In fact it takes most of the narrative for them to properly respect each other. He has all the local knowledge and skills and she has a horse and a musket and an overwhelming rage for vengeance. The film is so intense and bloody that I hid behind my hands on several occasions and when an isolated act of human kindness suddenly occurred I began to weep.
If I analyse the narrative with some distance I can see that it is a familiar tale of revenge in the form of a hunt/chase. I remembered a similar film from a few years ago, also set in the Tasmanian forest. The Hunter (Australia 2011) shares one or two elements with The Nightingale, but doesn’t dig quite as deeply into the history and the horror of ‘wild Tasmania’. Closer is a film like The Tracker (Australia 2002) and after I looked over that post, I realised that The Tracker shares an interest in songs as well as colonial history. Sweet Country (Australia 2017) is another important touchstone. These last two films both share a narrative with The Nightingale in which an Indigenous man outwits the coloniser but is ultimately brought down by the technology of the coloniser (i.e. the weaponry) and the coloniser’s confidence and arrogance, based on an assumed racial superiority and contempt for Indigenous peoples. I’m sure all colonial exploitation and repression has been and will be fuelled by the same two factors. Of course, the world may end before long because of the coloniser’s greed and indifference to the natural world. I imagine that Indigenous Australians might have lived in harmony with nature for the last 250 years if the Europeans had kept away.
Clare is ‘the nightingale’ of the title and her singing plays a significant role in the narrative. It is a terrific performance by Aisling Franciosi who is on-screen for most of the film’s running time. I did feel that I recognised her but I can’t say that the TV crime serial The Fall (2013-16) has stayed with me and that is where I would have seen her before. Now I see she has been filming a TV adaptation of Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus. She must have some chutzpah to take on the Kathleen Byron portrayal of Sister Ruth (looks a sensational cast). Sam Claflin is cast as Hawkins. I fear that I have misjudged his power as an actor. I found some of his early performances under-powered but I thought he worked well in Their Finest (UK 2016) and here he is terrifying. The third lead is newcomer Baykali Ganambarr as Billy, the Indigenous tracker. It seemed to me that he spoke English with what seemed to me to be a modern style/dialect. I wondered if this was deliberate by Kent – to suggest that the colonial oppression is ongoing? There were several credits giving information about the various Indigenous communities in Tasmania at the end of the film. I think one said that all the Indigenous actors in the film were from mainland Australia. The Indigenous population of Tasmania was effectively wiped out by the colonists (i.e. soldiers, convicts and settlers) by the late 19th century but now there are several thousand Tasmanians claiming Indigenous heritage through a history of mixed marriages.
Radek Ladczuk, who shot The Babadook for Jennifer Kent, frames this narrative in Academy ratio (1.37 : 1). Just as I didn’t notice the long running time (136 mins), I also found that I hardly noticed the framing because the tension was so great. Ladczuk also works with a palette of subdued colours in the forest, in candle-lit interiors and with costumes that emphasise the drabness of the colonial settlement – at least in the smaller settlements. It’s a shock when Clare meets some of the more moneyed classes in Launceston.
Since Jennifer Kent made her name with an innovative horror story, it is worth asking if this narrative has horror elements. I would say yes in the sense that not only is their excessive brutality but Clare is ‘haunted’ by the memories of the attacks and she has frequent nightmares – so much so that we do wonder if she hallucinates any of the events. Billy, too is affected by the sights he sees and the things he is forced to do. Sight and Sounds’ reviewer Nikki Baughan makes a perceptive comment when she concludes that Clare and Billy, unusually, do manage to have “wrought justice on their oppressors in a way that not many onscreen women and minorities are allowed to do”, but that they do not derive any pleasure or any relief from it. This is as she notes, “the most expertly landed gut punch of this astonishing, essential work”. I couldn’t agree more. This might be a hard film to find in a cinema but do try and see it.
Goldstone is a stand alone sequel to Mystery Road (Australia, 2013) which was spun off into a TV serial this year. Written, directed and photographed by Ivan Sen, Goldstone is a gripping thriller making me keen to see his other work. Aaron Pedersen plays an indigenous detective, Jay, investigating a missing Chinese girl in the Outback. This particular place, as the place’s name suggests, is an expanding gold mine. Goldstone, however, is not somewhere most would like to visit as most of the buildings are prefabs and the local mayor, chillingly played by Jacki Weaver, keeps a corrupt grip to ensure the land is thoroughly exploited.
Outback is a place well beyond urban areas where Aboriginals can feel at home except where their land is being exploited by capitalism. Sen’s direction ensures that the land itself is almost a character. High (presumably) drone shots show the arid wasteland as a place of beauty and a spiritual old man (David Gulpilil) takes Jay on a river trip to a place that’s both beautiful and uncanny.
The film is strictly generic and there’re few surprises in how the narrative unfolds, particularly in Jay’s relationship with the young and only cop in town. However, it is brilliantly executed and thoroughly modern as exploitation of the land and sex trafficking are key issues of the narrative and of our age; not just in Australia.
Pedersen’s superb as the alcoholic and traumatised maverick. When talking to ‘white folk’ he averts his eyes as if ‘knowing his place’ but, of course, is our protagonist hero who does the right thing. As this excellent review puts it, the film draws on the Western and Jay is a version of Eastwood’s Man with No Name character. Although we have the satisfaction of an action finale, it’s the conversations Jay has during his investigation that are most fascinating particularly with Weaver’s monstrous mayor. Her dead eyes convey her heartless soul whilst she smilingly distributes apple pies; it’s a brilliant performance. David Wenham is good too, wearing shorts and pulled up socks, as the mine manager who needs the mayor to bring out his full corruption.
Can’t wait to see Sen’s other work.
This film is a ‘companion piece’ to Charlie’s Country (Australia 2013). The earlier film offers a fictional story about Charlie, an Aboriginal man in his 60s who loses control over his life because of a range of factors affecting the lives of most Aboriginal peoples living in an isolated small town in the Northern Territory. Charlie is played by the actor David Gulpilil and in Another Country Gulpilil is the narrator of a documentary about the real small town of Ramingining which provided the setting for the fiction film. Another Country is directed by Molly Reynolds who is the partner of Rolf de Heer. The film is produced by Reynolds, de Heer and David Gulpilil’s friend Peter Djigirr. This quartet has also been responsible for the earlier films The Tracker (2002) and Ten Canoes (2006) and other associated films with each member of the quartet involved in different ways. Further films are in the works.
I’m very pleased to have been able to see Another Country via MUBI in the UK. It had been recommended to me but didn’t appear to be accessible outside Australia. It’s a devastating short(ish) documentary (75 mins) with a simple structure and a deceptive narration by David Gulpilil. I think I understand all the points made in the narration and I think I’m in sympathy with the political analysis, but there are also some aspects of the whole project (i.e. the group of recent films by the quartet mentioned above) which don’t immediately make sense and require the viewer to avoid immediate assumptions.
Ramingining is mainly photographed in Long Shot compositions with long takes with carefully selected medium shots of groups and close-ups of faces and hands working on artworks. These sometimes act as a form of punctuation in the stream of Long Shots. Molly Reynolds seems very careful not to get too close to her subjects and her style here is perhaps best described as ‘sensitive observation’. The portraits generally represent the towns inhabitants in a dignified way. Gulpilil’s narration is soft-spoken and sometimes humorous. It is also a severe condemnation of colonialist policies by successive Australian governments (at national and state level) that have ridden roughshod over cultural differences and have effectively ‘deculturated’ some Aboriginal peoples and caused major problems for others. Gulpilil goes through the several government policies of recent years that carry those mealy-mouthed management speak descriptors like ‘self-determination’ and ‘intervention’ It’s a beautifully written script and as Gulpilil speaks the words, Reynolds’ camera (operated by Matt Nettheim) coolly observes the town and its inhabitants. Gulpilil describes each new policy and explains precisely how they work in contradiction of local culture. As he says, “You (White Australians, but by extension all western/northern societies) say you want to help us, but you think you know more about us than we know ourselves. You don’t. You need to spend more time getting to know us – or leave us alone to do our own things on our own land”. I’m paraphrasing but this is a powerful argument. But, perhaps to give a kind of balance, the narration does admit that the missionaries who came did bring some useful ideas and created some employment. Now there is almost nothing to do in the town (the nearest big centre is 400km away).
At one point, Gulpilil is discussing the concept of ‘rubbish’, now piled up in various parts of Ramingining. We then see a woman by a rubbish dump pick up a broken tree branch and bend it. She moves into the bush, approaches a particular species of palm and uses the branch to pull down some long fronds. She then visits another palm and repeats the process. Gulpilil has been telling us that in his people’s culture there is no concept of ‘rubbish’ – to make something you look for resources in the bush. When your manually ‘manufactured’ object is worn out you return it to the bush and it is re-cycled in a natural process. He explains that the woman is his twin sister and she is collecting the palm leaves to weave a mat. It will take a long time but the Yolngu have plenty of time.
At various points, the narration stops and we observe a ‘set piece’ of some kind. One of these is an Easter ritual. One of Gulpilil’s friends, who ‘found God’ in hospital after suffering a heart attack, is playing the Christ figure in a version of the stations of the cross, stumbling on his way to church carrying his crucifix. I was reminded of the great Sembene Ousmane’s film Ceddo (Senegal 1977) in which American-style soul/gospel music is played in a scene set a century earlier when missionaries arrived in Africa. Looking through the credits I think what I thought was American might be Australian music played during the church scene in Another Country. At first I found these scenes disturbing but later wondered if they had somehow developed into a local ritual. Reynolds films other local rituals/cultural presentations, both ancient and modern as well. The scenes continued to remind me of depictions of Indigenous (or at least pre-colonial) communities in India, Africa and the Americas in various films.
When Gulpilil’s narration refers to the ‘old ways’, I got the impression that Reynold’s camera either found a bush scene with natural light effects or that the film had been processed to produce effects. I was reminded of Ten Canoes and this in turn set up my confusion with the overall presentation of the community. (I should point out that Gulpilil tells us that one of the problems in Ramingining is that the government moved different Indigenous groups, with different customs and languages, into the town and thus created tensions – ‘community’ here means multiple groups.) In Ten Canoes, directed by Rolf de Heer with narration by David Gulpilil and stories from his Yolngu people, we are offered a highly sophisticated film narrative covering three distinct time periods and recreating a traditional annual hunt, by canoe for goose eggs. This required the recreation of rituals last carried out in the 1930s and now almost forgotten but which were captured on archive photographs by an anthropologist. In the promotional material for that film, Gulpilil emphasises how his people are both rooted in their own culture but also plugged in to modern communications such as internet banking. David Gulpilil himself is a complex individual. Australia’s best-known and most honoured Indigenous actor, writer, artist, dancer and more. He first appeared as a teenager in Nic Roeg’s Walkabout (UK-Australia 1971) and has appeared in many Australian films since with all the celebrity implications that implies. Yet he also shares some of the experiences of his character Charlie in Charlie’s Country. He’s had problems in the past with alcohol and he’s been to prison twice he tells us in the narration. He appears in the documentary but he tells us “that’s enough about me” and he doesn’t become a focus for the film overall apart from his narration.
I found Charlie’s Country to be a disturbing and provocative film which I’m still not sure I understood totally. I watched it again recently and wondered if some of the incidents were meant to be ‘dreamt’ rather than actually experienced. After watching Another Country, I’m wondering if this is a ‘personal view’ of Ramingining and that there are other different stories? The experiences of the Yolngu people who have worked with Gulipil, Djigirr, de Heer and Reynolds aren’t directly represented in the film. Perhaps to do so would have made the film too complex and taken something away from or confused the central argument. I don’t know and its difficult to comment without a better knowledge of contemporary Australian culture. I look forward to the future films from the group and I hope that eventually someone will release a DVD or download version in the UK.
I did see this film in Glasgow, but as it was released officially in the UK on March 9th, I decided to wait to see what kind of reception it got on its opening weekend. That has proved to be an interesting experience. Sweet Country was screened at Cineworld on Renfrew Street on a large screen which benefited this magnificent film – if you get the opportunity, see it on the largest screen you can. Unfortunately, you will struggle to find a local multiplex showing the film over the next few weeks. Despite the good job Thunderbird Releasing has done in promoting the film it is mainly showing at arthouse cinemas in major cities (and we don’t have screenings in Bradford – just two shows in Leeds). Check for your nearest screening here: http://showtimes.sweetcountryfilm.co.uk
Sweet Country is that rare but increasingly important beast – an Indigenous film from Australia. It is presented in a form that is instantly accessible to audiences outside Australia as a ‘Western’ set in the Northern Territory during the late 1920s. The narrative is based on a true story and it explores the racism of Australia’s colonial past (and as such comments on the racial tensions of the present and possible future of Australia). Writer-director-cinematographer Warwick Thornton came to prominence on the international stage with short films and then with Samson and Delilah (Australia 2009) which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. I was knocked sideways when I saw that film on DVD a few years later. Samson and Delilah uses local non-professional actors for its teenage lead characters and was shot on location in the Alice Springs area. Before I saw that film I had come across Warwick Thornton’s camerawork in a more mainstream Indigenous film The Sapphires (Australia 2012) by Thornton’s mate Wayne Blair. This hugely enjoyable (and moving) film about an Aboriginal girl group performing for US Armed Forces in Vietnam in the 1960s deserved a much bigger audience than it found in the UK.
The narrative of Sweet Country is in one sense quite simple, but Warwick Thornton’s treatment, in terms of sound and image and narrative structure, turns into a rich and complex film that will repay many re-viewings. (The film eschews non-diegetic music and relies on the natural sounds of the environment.) The basic premise is that the establishment of cattle stations in the Alice Springs area has produced an unbalanced and dangerous local community with white men outnumbering white women and the local Indigenous people forced to work almost as indentured labour on their own land. In 1929 an embittered war veteran Harry March takes over a ranch and seeks to ‘borrow’ some Indigenous workers for a couple of days. Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a local rancher who sees himself as a religious man reluctantly agrees to ask his worker Sam to go to the March place along with his wife and niece for a few days. Sam is wary of March and when the drunken white man comes after the Indigenous family with a gun, Sam kills him in self-defence. Having killed a white man, Sam and Lizzie must go on the run in the bush. A posse led by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) sets out to track them. The outcome of the search and its aftermath is shocking. I’ve purposefully left out a lot of detail and not allowed any real spoilers but these are the main sections of the narrative. Thornton uses both flashbacks and flashforwards in presenting his narrative.
Helped by his local knowledge, Thornton’s presentation of landscapes including rocky outcrops, ravines, scrub and desert is stunning. The brief outline above refers to familiar elements from American Westerns. Australian development in the Northern territory was slower and only the presence of a travelling film show featuring The Ned Kelly Story (1906) signifies the twentieth century. The Western comparison is, I feel, a two-edged sword for Warwick Thornton who has promoted his film using the ‘Western’ tag. It makes the story more familiar and more accessible to audiences outside Australia (and perhaps to contemporary Australian audiences), but it also risks critics and reviewers treating the film as simply an ‘exotic’ form of a familiar genre rather than a historical Indigenous film exploring the racism and oppression of colonial exploitation. I fear that this has happened to a certain extent in some of the UK critical writing on the film. Some of the better coverage of the film comes in Sight and Sound, April 2018 with ‘Red Earth’, an essay by Trevor Johnston plus a review by Jason Anderson. Also in the same issue is a Tony Rayns DVD Review of the film Goldstone by Ivan Sen. As Rayns notes: ” . . . it’s blackfella directors like Ivan Sen and Warwick Thornton who are making the running in current Oz cinema”. I would endorse that view. Ivan Sen’s new film is another ‘frontier Western’ (in Queensland) following on from his previous film Mystery Road (2013) featuring an Indigenous police officer Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen). None of the reviewers I read this weekend mentioned The Tracker (Australia 2002), the film made by the partnership of director Rolf de Heer and veteran Indigenous actor David Gulpilil. The pair made two more films, Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country (2013) about Indigenous characters across history. The films by Thornton, Sen and those in which Gulpilil had considerable creative input sit alongside films like Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) – which though directed by a white Australian has Indigenous children at its centre and a memoir by an Indigenous woman as its source material (and is therefore another historical film based on a true story). Together these films present a significant Indigenous Australian cinema. (I should also note that Little White Lies is a UK publication that has a committed review of the film and references ‘10 essential Indigenous Australian films‘.)
Although Sweet Country and The Tracker are not the same narrative they do share several significant features. Both are set in the 1920s and both involve a posse attempting to apprehend an Indigenous man accused of the murder of a white person. In both cases the posse includes a white man who is fanatical and openly racist, another who is experienced but not so ‘hot-blooded’ and a younger police officer who is more constrained by rules and ethics. Equally both groups of Europeans are outwitted by the Indigenous fugitive who knows how to live off the land and navigate the terrain. Important too is the fact that the chase moves across land occupied by other Indigenous groups – Aboriginal Australians are not one amorphous mass simply recognisable as ‘Other’ by white society. Instead they are different groups of people with different languages and different cultures. The significant difference in The Tracker is that an Indigenous man is ’employed’ as a tracker to lead the posse to the fugitive with all the moral dilemmas that entails (and he’s played by the film’s lead actor David Gulpilil). In Sweet Country there is also an Indigenous tracker, Archie, another stockman. But Archie is a relatively minor character in the narrative. Another minor character is a mixed race boy Philomac whose status is not clearly defined. However, Philomac is involved in the major incident at the beginning of the film and his ‘in between’ position carries meaning. The whole final section of Sweet Country is loaded with meanings. It poses a number of questions including whether the establishment of a church or the intervention of the justice system will have an impact on the racism expressed in the white community. British audiences should feel implicated in these questions because although Australia became an independent nation in 1901, the influence of British colonialism was still being felt in the 1920s. Researching this post I discovered that between 1927 and 1931, when the events in the narrative were meant to take place, the Northern Territory was in a kind of limbo while new arrangements for its governance were being discussed. I’m not sure if this is significant. Wayne Thornton expresses some of these concerns in the Press Notes.
Sweet Country is a western. A period western set in Central Australia. It has all the elements of the genre – the frontier, confiscation of land, subordination and conquest of a people and epic sweeping landscapes.
The world of Sweet Country has been newly established by the British Crown through the forceful taking of Indigenous lands. Yet these are lands which had and still possess a deep and complex web of ancient Indigenous laws, customs and life.
Sweet Country is set on a frontier outpost in 1929, where different cultural worlds collide, in an epic and beautiful desert landscape. It is a place where Indigenous, and non-Indigenous people push against each other like tectonic plates. It is a clash of cultures, ideologies and spirits that still continues today from when the colonisers first arrived in Australia.
My aim has been to use the accessibility of the western genre for audiences to enter the story and be drawn into this world and so experience the issues faced by an occupied people. (Warwick Thornton)
I think that reference to ‘an occupied people’ is very telling. Sweet Country should make non-Indigenous audiences think differently about how they have previously viewed Australian films.
I’m looking forward to seeing the film again at some point and I’m sure I’ll see things I missed the first time round. I’m encouraged by the Australian box office which after seven weeks has held up very well taking nearly US$1.4 million so far. The UK first weekend (plus previews) is £29,000 from 26 sites (the equivalent of US$40,200). The film opens in the US on Friday 16 March. Part of its box office appeal lies in the presence of Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, two audience favourites in Australia. The Indigenous characters Sam and Lizzie are played by Hamilton Morris and Natassia Gorey-Furber. Morris has one previous credit but Gorey-Furber was making a first appearance. The film was written by Steven McGregor and David Trainter. McGregor is an experienced hand having written and/or directed several TV dramas and films. David Trainter is an Indigenous sound recordist who worked on Samson and Delilah. It was from his grandfather’s knowledge of the historical incidents that the story was developed.
The Australian trailer: (WARNING it shows more of the story than set out above):