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Monday, December 18, 2023



Tasmania is a starkly beautiful island, much closer in nature to New Zealand than the continent of mainland Australia. The bush and the landscape "feel" the same, though much more sepia colored. There is a darkness there, too, darker than New Zealand, a shadow cast by a brutal history.  I will never forget the chill that descended over me when I first explored the ruins of the prison at Port Arthur, where the worst of convicts met the worst of punishments. Chosen by the lieutenant governor, Sir George Arthur, for its site -- on a narrow isthmus, almost entirely surrounded by shark-infested waters -- it was a place where dreadful things happened on a daily basis. An aura of despair clings to the ruins; later, I was not surprised at all that a modern mass shooting was carried out there. Its history of violence has seeped into the stones.

A completely callous man, Sir George Arthur set out from the day he took office, in May 1824, to wage war against the indigenous people, the Aborigines of Tasmania.  It was called the "Black War." His first move was to station small gangs of soldiers in remote parts of the island, to "protect" the settlers, which in effect meant lynching and shooting the Aboriginal men, and raping, then killing, the women. He even put a bounty on the heads of these unfortunate first owners of the land, first for live men, then for live women and children, and finally for the heads of dead Aboriginals.  

And this astounding film depicts this dark history exactly, laying bare the brutality, cruelty and barbaric ignorance that marked the colonisation of the island by the British.

Clare (played superbly by Aisling Franciosi) is a young Irishwoman with an angelic singing voice, called "The Nightingale."  The crime that landed her on the far side of the world is never described, but it must have been minor, as she had worked out her sentence long before this story starts. She has been allowed to marry Aidan, who is also Irish, so this film is in Gaelic as well as English, and it is heart-touching to hear Clare and her husband converse lovingly in that musical language.

They have a little baby, a hut, and a horse, and both, technically, should be free. Both should have been given their "tickets of leave" -- meaning that they would not be forced to keep on serving the local military detachment. But the lieutenant in charge -- Hawkins, played with barely restrained savagery by Sam Claflin -- refuses to give them these "papers."  When Clare persists, he rapes her.  She flees to her husband, but then Hawkins and two of his soldiers arrive in the hut, and in the ensuing fracas they murder her husband, and kill her baby. A gang rape follows, and Clare is left for dead. 

Instead, she survives. Her body is mostly intact, but her mind is damaged. She is set on revenge. 

Hawkins and the soldiers have left the outpost, however. With a small retinue of convicts, they are heading across the interior to Launceston, so that Hawkins can apply for a promotion. Clare is determined to follow and kill them, but to get across the island she needs a Black tracker. It is impossible, otherwise, though she dislikes the idea. The young man who is coopted (Mangana, played with remarkable passion and sensitivity by Baykall Ganambarr) is equally reluctant to be her guide.  He has other priorities -- his father, brothers, and uncles have been murdered by the English, and he is set on his own mission of revenge. What tips the balance of the argument in Clare's favor is that she convinces him that she is Irish, not English, and that she hates the English as much as he does. As she tells him, they share a common history of colonisation and subjugation and misery. 

And there is something more, a mythic connection -- he is Mangana, a blackbird, and she is Clare, the nightingale. The birds that will save them. 


And so the slow chase unfolds, with occasional violent encounters.

This film is not an easy watch, but it is unfailingly gripping. There are moments that stand out:  Clare suffers with her engorged breasts, and Mangana makes her a paste that the women of his tribe used to dry up milk, and performs a smoke ceremony to make her better. Mangana is staunchly grim -- until one of the few moments of kindness breaks down that barrier of stoicism.  A liberal-minded farmer who shelters them for the night insists that Mangana sits at the supper table, and the Aboriginal is so overtaken with emotion that he sobs.They come across a party of settlers with captured warriors, who tell Mangana in the palawa kani language that all of his people are dead. Angered by the unintelligible conversation, the Englishmen shoot the captives, and then cut off their heads, and Mangana and Clare grasp their chance to run away and avoid being captured themselves. But now Mangana's spirit is as damaged and wrathful as hers. 

There is much to shock in this very graphic film, but the shock is justified. It is utterly and absolutely authentic.  All those terrible things really did happen. The Tasmanian natives were wiped out, completely. Their palawa kani language had to be reconstructed by the writers, as there has been no one to speak it for many generations now. Baykall Ganambarr is Yolngu, from the far north of the Northern Territory, meaning that the actor was emotionally almost as far from the scene of action as the fictional Clare was from her home in Ireland. That is a fact that I found starkly revealing in itself.

And the convicts were treated as badly, too, particularly the women. The soldiers were exactly as ignorant and dissolute as portrayed. Bernard Cornwell, in his Sharpe series, set in the Indian and Napoleonic Wars, is equally as unstinting in describing the soldiers of the time, but there are happy overtones in his tales.  There were no happy overtones in Tasmania, Norfolk Island and New South Wales. The soldiers did not want to go there, and no one volunteered. Taken as a whole, and barring many exceptions, they were scum.  

If you don't believe me, read "The Brutal History Behind Jennifer Kent's 'The Nightingale'."  


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