Taken from the autumn 2019 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here
Some violent movies thrill, some distract. Very few confront audiences with brutality in the name of healing actual wounds. But acclaimed Babadook director Jennifer Kent’s new project, The Nightingale – an unsparingly authentic tale of sexual violence, racism and murder in 1800s Tasmania – is the harshest reality you’ll face at the movies this year.
Featuring rising Irish-Italian star Aisling Franciosi, The Nightingale portrays the extreme hardships endured by Clare, an Irish convict caught in the throes of British colonial rule. After suffering multiple rapes and witnessing a ruthless act of violence against her family by a British officer (Sam Claflin), her life is torn apart. She is left reeling, seemingly condemned to despair in isolation. Instead, her grief turns to rage. Seeking justice, she befriends another outsider: an Aboriginal man named Billy, whose people also suffered horribly at the hands of the colonisers. In their mutual journey, their own tragic narratives broaden and merge and a new kind of story – of endurance, solidarity and, of course, vengeance – emerges. You will not forget them.
“This film sparks very strong reactions because it forces the viewer to be uncomfortable,” says 28-year-old Franciosi, her born-and-bred lilting Irish accent echoing Clare’s own, when we meet in New York. “We are so used to violence where you can distance yourself. ‘Oh, this is a fantastical, medieval setting.’” (As the actress who played Lyanna Stark in Game of Thrones, Franciosi is qualified to make this observation.) “We don’t (connect) to them as human beings. It’s powerful to say, ‘No! Remember this isn’t just another fatality. This is a human being. Look at their eyes and make sure you know that.’”
The Nightingale forces you to make eye contact and, indeed, has left its mark on many. The film has won rave reviews but also caused a furore at early screenings, its violence allegedly causing walkouts. One man at Venice film festival had a seizure – though Franciosi later claimed it was nothing to do with the film. Sensationalist headlines aside: The Nightingale is a hard watch. You will feel pain and rage. You’ll question the depravity of man. Good. You should see it. Once. And then think about it awhile.
“My brother saw it with me, and says it’s brilliant. He also said he doesn’t want to see it again for years,” says Franciosi, agreeing that the film is not a light watch. The actress’s serene, upbeat energy in person comes as something of a relief, then. She is pale, dark-haired and petite. With her name ‘Aisling’ (pronounced Ash-ling) meaning ‘vision’ in Celtic, she does in fact seem like she could possess mystical powers (take it from a Colleen). But the day we meet, she wears glasses and is dressed casually, looking like an off-duty grad student. She is cheerful, calm and excited about life in New York City. An Italian native, she studied language at Trinity College in Dublin then based herself in London while filming television drama The Fall, co-starring with Gillian Anderson, before moving Stateside last year. She’s exceptionally grateful for The Nightingale, and makes it clear it has changed her life. “Jennifer could have got a big name; in fact, she made things more difficult for herself by casting me… but I’m really glad she did!”
Kent, for her part, has no doubt Franciosi was the right person for the role. “I was really moved by Aisling’s work straight away,” she says. “She was Irish, she could speak (Gaelic) and she could sing beautifully, so it was a no-brainer for me. You hope when you write a role that you will find someone to embody that character. Aisling was so clearly right for Clare: a brilliant actress, but also a very warm and kind person. Clare really needed those qualities.”
“This film sparks very strong reactions because it forces the viewer to be uncomfortable” – Aisling Franciosi
Clare, the ‘Nightingale’ of the film’s title, is forced to play songbird to her oppressors, and generally lives life with grace under fire – until she is forced into the flames. Upon being cast, Franciosi spent months channelling the pain of other women, some lost to history, some of whom she met herself. She delved deep into her research, watching documentaries about female sexual abuse around the world but also meeting with actual rape victims.“It was harrowing,” she remembers. “These women were so generous to tell me their stories, so I felt a huge weight of responsibility. I wanted to honour them.” On set, a psychological advisor was available during particularly difficult scenes.
“One argument that I’m really not a fan of is when people say (of the film), ‘I hate when rape is used as a moment for when a woman finds her strength,’” says Franciosi. “That’s so reductive. It’s not what makes her find her strength – she’s already strong. Endurance is a form of strength. It’s not a sexy or glorious form of strength. It’s very sacred. Keep going, just keep going. It’s a quality women have in spades. Being abused was something that more than half of women convicts had to endure multiple times. In this film, Clare has been a long-time survivor of PTSD. Her mentality is, ‘I’ll make myself as small as possible and just get through this and I’ll be fine.’ It’s not about simply standing up for herself. She’s protecting her family, her dream. Her future.”
Careful cinematography choices force you to encounter the world through Clare’s experience, which Franciosi depicts with searing empathy: a moment with Clare’s leaking breasts is filled with grief at the loss of her child. “Jennifer said to me, ‘I don’t ever want Clare to be objectified, I want her to be a person with an emotional journey,’” says Franciosi. “You never see skin. You almost never see two bodies in the frame. You don’t make it look like a sex scene. You are forced to see her face.”
“I wanted to show how much pain this causes,” says Kent, who spent years carefully planning her script. “For the victim, obviously, but also for the aggressor. If we can look violence in the face, and truly examine where it comes from, in ourselves and in others, then I think we have the potential to transcend it.” For her part, Kent’s vision made Franciosi realise how rape connects to a greater picture of colonial violence, noting that it is about “dehumanisation”. “It’s no coincidence that rape and war go hand in hand,” she says.
This broader view on colonial brutality is elucidated through Clare’s friendship with Billy (brilliant newcomer Baykali Ganambarr, a dancer cast through the help of Aboriginal advisor Uncle Jim Everett). Their begrudging but ultimately vital relationship provides the film with its one ray of humanity, hope and even humour. “It really is the heart of the movie,” agrees Franciosi. “It’s ultimately Billy that saves Clare – or, really, shows her how to choose to save herself.” Both parties learn how the other suffers at the hands of a common oppressor, while deepening their empathy for each other.
Their joining of trajectories was vital for Kent. “To tell a white convict woman’s story and not include the Aboriginal story would have felt incomplete and disrespectful to me,” she says. “It’s a shared suffering, a deep fallout from colonialism. I was very concerned with telling an Aboriginal story the right way. So I knew it was going to be crucial that I have senior Tasmanian Aboriginal consent and collaboration.”
“If you’re going to show a story through the female lens… (have) a fucking female voice behind it! This is what it feels like to be violated in that way and (feel) the hate and fear that comes with that” – Aisling Franciosi
Even with the extreme conscientiousness with which The Nightingale was made, some may see it as a bloodthirsty feminist revenge tale. Franciosi acknowledges that tired stance and sighs a bit. “I do suspect that people are shocked that a woman has directed it because there’s this attitude of, ‘How could a woman who is supposed to be emotionally sensitive blah, blah, blah,’” she says, trailing off in annoyance. “But if you’re going to show a story through the female lens… (have) a fucking female voice behind it! This is what it feels like to be violated in that way and (feel) the hate and fear that comes with that. I have to say, I’m so proud of this film that I don’t care if people don’t like it.”
After months spent filming in difficult conditions (the cast and crew shot in Tasmanian forests, sleeping in fishing huts at night), Franciosi had trouble leaving Clare behind, even after flying back to London to see family. “I struggled with getting my mental inner monologue back to my… neutral,” she says. “I was very low for a few months. I’m glad you met me now!”
The gravity of The Nightingale surrounds her still, as it nears a wider global release. Survivors regularly message her about the film, praising its authenticity. One woman even told her it helped her reframe her own experience. “She said, ‘It was something that was happening to me that didn’t have anything to do with me – it was nothing that I did,’” says Franciosi. “I just think, ‘Oh my God – if our film, even for just a few people, is something that they feel is a powerful reminder of what survivors they are – that’s amazing.”
Hair Adam Szabo at Frank Reps using R+Co, make-up Mariel Barrera at The Wall Group using Marc Jacobs Beauty, photography assistant Amelia Hammond