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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Set in Tasmania circa 1825, the film centres on Clare, an Irish convict living in a British penal colony with her husband and infant child. When her family is killed by a rogue band of British soldiers who rape her and leave her for dead, Clare sets off on a dangerous journey across the Australian bush to find and kill her attackers.
But this is not a rape-revenge movie. It does not take the familiar narrative turns which allow viewers to take refuge from the horror as it plays out on screen. Rather, the film centres on the experience of sexual violence on a purely individual level.
Clare’s story, most clearly when we see the assault in a long, uninterrupted sequence, is rendered both in its moment-to-moment terror and the details which make it unique. As such, the director does not reduce Clare’s rape to a mere narrative device – a break, a demarcation without consistency. But perhaps more importantly, the length and specificity of that sequence also challenges our desire to “relate”: though we certainly feel bad for Clare, her assault and story are hers alone.
The film further obstructs our impulse to find someone to identify with and hold on to in this world of pain by portraying Clare as a racist through her interactions with indigenous tracker Billy. Though Clare eventually comes to like him, their bond is not symbolic of some wider, non-historical breakthrough, and the film never tries to equate her experience of sexism with his dealings of racism. These are two characters on parallel paths, dealing with parallel demons. They cannot begin to fully understand each other’s trauma. All they can do is act based on what they gather from their own specific, unique perspective.
The Nightingale similarly does not ask its audience to identify with or relate to any of its characters. It only tells us to watch and to listen.