IFC Films

There’s a shocking amount of negative buzz around The Nightingale, the new film from New Zealand writer/director Jennifer Kent, who also wrote and directed 2014’s surprise horror hit The Babadook. Audience members at the Australian premiere of The Nightingale reportedly walked out, with one shouting, “She’s already been raped, we don’t need to see it again!”

It’s true that rape is a big part of The Nightingale, which centers on an Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) and her hunt for justice and revenge. The film is set in 1825 Tasmania, where convicts work off their crimes for British settlers and where settlers enslave the island’s indigenous peoples. It would be weird not to have rape in the film.

But Kent’s approach to filming rape is neither gratuitous nor exploitative. The camera remains on the face of the victim, showing their emotions, their pain, and their resilience. I found myself challenged by many things in the film, not just the sexual violence. Clare’s relationship with her hired guide Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) starts off with the same hierarchical oppression that crushes Clare, except now she’s the one with the power.

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“The history of my country is hard,” Kent told film critic April Wolfe on the podcast Switchblade Sisters, “but it’s something that we all felt needed to be told.”

In other words, The Nightingale isn’t the rape revenge film it’s being passed off as—or it’s not only that, anyway. It’s a film about colonialism and a hierarchy of oppression that hurts everyone involved, though mostly the people at the bottom: women, people of color, and children. It’s also a story of love and strength. It has a startling, sparse sound design by Robert Mackenzie, and gorgeous landscapes—alpine wilderness, dry lands, and fog—shot in parts of Tasmania that Kent says have never been filmed before. There’s a lot to the film, and I respect anyone who needs to sit this one out. But if you go into The Nightingale, be a witness to history. Don’t look away.