Full interview with Aisling for The Times UK.
Brutal colonial drama The Nightingale has caused uproar on the film festival circuit. Its star, the Game of Thrones actress Aisling Franciosi, explains why the movie’s violence is necessary.
To understand The Nightingale you need to know about the ructions. When the film, a brutal historical drama about life in early 19th-century Tasmania, travelled the festival circuit last year it caused uproar. At the Venice Film Festival, when the closing credits rolled and the name of its writer-director, Jennifer Kent, appeared, an Italian critic (male) stood up and roared: “Whore!”
Kent had previously made the sinister yet pleasing modern horror classic The Babadook in 2014, and this was her eagerly awaited follow-up. Yet when The Nightingale played at the Chicago Film Festival there were several noted walkouts. When it played at the Sundance Film Festival an audience member had a seizure. Wherever it plays, it seems, at small or large pre-release screenings, the reactions are visceral and walkouts are frequent.
To understand the walkouts you need to know about the film. Yes, you’ve heard that it’s controversial, perhaps even the most controversial film of the year. Yes, you’ve read that it features rape. And so you’re prepared to be challenged. It’s the story of a married Irish convict and young mother called Clare (a gobsmacking performance from the relatively untested Irish-Italian actress Aisling Franciosi) who is left at the mercy of an uncouth English officer, Lieutenant Hawkins (former Hunger Games hunk Sam Claflin, also a revelation) and his loathsome subordinates in the mid-1820s.
When the early scenes descend into the vicious rape of Clare by Hawkins, in his quarters late at night, it’s almost tolerable because it displays cinematic logic. This will be the traumatic event, the film seems to say, that will mould Clare and launch her heroic and transformative journey. At least that seems to be the format. It happened in Thelma and Louise. This is what’s going to happen here, right?
No such luck. It gets worse for Clare. There’s another prolonged scene of harrowing sexual violence, with multiple people involved. There is murder too, and savage infanticide. And another rape, this time of a wandering Aboriginal mother whose mournful cries, right through the crime, of “Good spirits come help me!” for minutes on end, permeate the skull.
Every white man Clare encounters, as she bolts across the landscape in a bid for freedom and revenge, seems to want to rape or kill her, usually both. Most Aboriginal men are shot or hanged. Another child is murdered. A young man’s head is bashed in. Throats are slit.
The film is profoundly disturbing. But it’s also urgent, necessary and in places quite beautiful. Mostly, Franciosi says, it’s relentless. Relentless and deliberate. “The whole point is that if we’re going to depict something so abhorrent, both in the sexual and racial violence, it has to be realistic,” says the 28-year-old (“My IMDB page says I’m 26, but I’m 28!”), sipping coffee at the crack of dawn in a café in Notting Hill, west London. “And we have to show the emotional destruction it causes, without any let-up. We’re not going to give the viewer a moment to go, ‘Oh, thank God that’s over!’ Because the victim doesn’t get that.”
Franciosi, who played Jamie Dornan’s infatuated babysitter in The Fall and who nabbed some small-screen kudos (however briefly) for playing Jon Snow’s mother, Lyanna Stark, in Game of Thrones was cast in 2016.
She then spent nine months researching Kent’s already densely historical script, reading voraciously about the punishing limits of 19th-century life in what was then Van Diemen’s Land (“Usually nine men to every one woman,” she notes), working closely with a clinical psychologist on the traumatic impact of rape, and meeting rape survivors at a centre for domestic violence in Sydney.
The clinical psychologist was on set, in rural Tasmania in late 2017, for many of the scenes, to ensure accuracy, to support Franciosi and also, it transpires, to support Claflin and the other male performers. Franciosi describes the shooting of one centrepiece scene as emotionally devastating for everyone involved. She says that she was crying between every take, as were Claflin, with whom Franciosi had become good friends during pre-production, and many of the other men.
“I remember when we were doing that scene the psychologist came over to me and said, ‘Would you mind going over and giving the guys a hug because they’re really worried about you.’ It was because I was in bits. And they were in bits. And so were the crew members in the room. Big strapping Aussie men. They were in tears.”
She says that the scenes with Claflin, who plays Yorkshireman Hawkins as a ruthless brute, were especially difficult (“Because he’s so sweet and so lovely”), but also impeccably choreographed. Kent’s rules for shooting these scenes were simple and direct, part of a concerted effort to “desexualise” the filming of screen rape.
“You never see skin, it’s all from Clare’s perspective, and you almost never see two bodies in frame at the one time,” Franciosi says. “We wanted to make it look like what it is — not like a sex scene, but like a crime that’s being done to a human being.”
The finished film, of course, is more than the sum of its controversial scenes. It depicts Clare’s journey to bring Hawkins to justice — or to the nearest version of justice available to a disenfranchised female convict in 19th- century Tasmania. Clare’s relationship with her Aboriginal guide, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), is delicate and moving, and provides the film with a hint of soul amid such all-consuming nihilism.
Clare’s heroic cri de coeur, “I belong to me and to no one else!”, feels as if it’s boldly articulating, almost nod-to-the-camera style, the contemporary concerns that have rocked the film industry in the past few years.
Franciosi says that she understands why some men might feel threatened by the film. “I understand why it’s tricky,” she says. “And it can seem specific to white men, but it’s about this specific time in history. And I recognise that we’re at a point now where white men are probably feeling attacked from all angles. But the film isn’t saying that all white men are shit. It’s saying, ‘These white men are shit.’ ”
Kent too has rubbished the notion that her film is a simplistic feminist rant, saying that she wants to show how much pain sexual violence causes,“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.”
“It’s not just men who have had very difficult reactions to it,” Franciosi adds. “We’ve had women who were victims who found it triggering and had to leave the cinema. But equally there have been other victims who’ve come up to me and said, ‘I felt understood for the first time as a victim of sexual violence.’
“It’s as if, finally, there’s a film that’s showing what these crimes committed against women truly mean. So when people say that we don’t need to see it to know what it means, I think, ‘No. You actually do.’ ”
The film has been a boost for New York-based Franciosi, who immediately after Venice was declared one of the European film industry’s Shooting Stars (it’s an honorary title handed by the European Film Promotion network to ten white-hot actors and actresses every year — previous holders have included Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson).
At the moment she’s in London shooting a TV adaptation of the Powell and Pressburger film Black Narcissus (she plays the unstable Sister Ruth). She has high hopes for The Nightingale’s UK release and is predicting heated debates.
“I’m a big believer in messy conversations and having the space to say something difficult without being crushed or, as they say now, cancelled,” she says. “I think, with The Nightingale, we tried as best as we could to address some huge societal questions. And yet everyone who sees it is going to walk away from it with something different and that’s going to spark conversations. And if that’s all that it does, well then that’s great.”
The Nightingale is released on November 29
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