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Not just a period revenge thriller

Aisling felt a great responsibility to rape survivors when telling the story.

You’ve seen her in The Fall, Jimmy’s Hall and more recently in Game of Thrones, actress Aisling Franciosi told David Hennessy why, when playing a survivor of rape in her starring role in The Nightingale, she felt a responsibility to those who have suffered sexual abuse in real life.

Irish actress Aisling Franciosi first came to people’s attention as the schoolgirl who fell under the spell of Jamie Dornan’s killer in The Fall. She has also acted for director Ken Loach in Jimmy’s Hall. More recently she played Lyanna Stark, the mother of Jon Snow in HBO’s huge fantasy series, Game of Thrones.

She continues to tackle serious themes in her first major big screen role, The Nightingale, in which she plays an Irish convict during Australia’s ‘Black War’ who seeks revenge for the murder of her family and her rape by British soldiers.

Aisling spoke about how she met with survivors of rape to help inform her performance and how she felt a responsibility to them while telling the story and set the record straight on mass audience walk outs in reaction to its violent scenes.

When The Nightingale screened at Sydney Film Festival last year, it was reported that masses walked out because they couldn’t handle the tale of rape and revenge. It was reported that the majority of the audience felt it was too much and left.

Aisling tells The Irish World that this story was misreported: “There were a couple of people who left. I think it was ten out of 900 or something like that. In the festival circuit it’s a very common thing for a million and one different reasons and a million and one kinds of film for people to leave a screening, so I think it must have been a slow news day and I think the reasons that they gave it were blown out of proportion.”

Set in 1825 in the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (which is now Tasmania), The Nightingale sees Aisling play Irish convict Clare who goes looking for revenge against the British officers who raped her and killed her husband and baby in front of her eyes. Looking for revenge, Clare follows her assailants through the wilderness with an Aboriginal man as her guide.

“Yes, the film has some very difficult scenes in it to watch but they are not in any way gratuitous, they are there for a reason and they’re shot in a very particular way. I don’t think the word is necessarily graphic, I think it’s more emotionally extremely confronting. Again most people took it through the movie, they didn’t leave.

“Honestly I’ve been really pleasantly surprised in that the majority of people have responded really well to it. Obviously it’s a very confronting watch and people acknowledge that. I don’t think you can watch it without finding it quite confronting and definitely very thought-provoking.

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“A lot of people say to me that the film really stuck with them for days and they found themselves thinking about the topics and themes in it. That, to me, is a win because my dream and goal making films was to make work that makes people feel something and I definitely feel our film does that and it does it for all the right reasons.”

Aisling has been honoured with an AACTA (Australian equivalent of Oscars of BAFTAs) award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Clare.

“I obviously knew the scenes were going to be a lot but having spoken to Jen (Kent, writer and director), I just realised how intelligent a woman she is and how much thought she put in to this script and the years of research that went into it. I knew that we would be shooting it in a very particular way, the meaning and the message behind the scene and the reason for doing it was very, very clear to us. I wasn’t worried about it being gratuitous. I really don’t think that it is.”

Aisling will be familiar to many from her role in BBC’s The Fall where she played the young babysitter who fell very much under Jamie Dornan’s lead character’s spell. She also acted in Quirke with Gabriel Byrne, for Ken Loach in Jimmy’s Hall and played a huge role in Game of Thrones where, although she only appeared in two episodes, her appearance brought a revelation from the show’s back story.

Aisling wanted to portray her character realistically and met survivors of abuse to inform her portrayal of Clare.

“I felt a massive, massive sense of responsibility not just because I wanted to tell the story of survivors from the get go but during my time doing research I met with real victims and people were extremely generous in sharing their trauma with me in order to get to a place of playing this role as authentically as I could. I really felt the weight of responsibility of telling this story the right way, of filming these scenes the right way and honouring their generosity.

“We had both sides of the reaction spectrum in that we had some survivors and victims of abuse saying that they just found it too much which is completely understandable, but the good side of it is we also had, in particular, women come up to us and say, ‘Thank you for showing the PTSD you have to deal with after an event like this’.

“I had one woman come up to me in LA and say to me, ‘As a victim of sexual violence, I felt understood watching this film’. So there are pretty powerful reactions and that’s what I love about cinema that tries to be honest and bold is that it provokes very, very different reactions and very different reactions provoke conversation and that’s the most important thing.

“When I was reading the script, the main thing that stood out to me was it felt like more than an entertainment piece. Some film and TV is made just purely for entertainment and that’s fine and then there are others that I think do something more. I think that was the feeling I got when I read the script the first time. I thought, ‘Wow, this script is a really powerful story and actually it feels like it is trying to be more’.”

The film tries to accurately represent what a victim really goes through in the days after such an attack so Clare’s ordeal is not over with the end of the attack or even the end of the film.

Photo by Matt Nettheim

“The rape was not just a catalyst for the story. What Clare goes through is what a lot of women go through, convicts and the Aboriginal women at that time, and many women continue to be subjected to this kind of abuse even today. This is a reality of being a woman at that time and so for us to tell a story about a female convict in Australia at that time and to set it during what was known as ‘the Black War’ (Struggle between British colonists and Aboriginal Australians in Tasmania in the years 1820- 1832), you can’t possibly tell those stories without honouring the whole truth of them. Unfortunately one of the awful truths that they had to endure was this kind of sexual abuse and assault and violence.

“It was never going to be there as just an element of drama. Jen and I were very clear on it needing to be from the female perspective, for it to be based purely on the emotional damage that violence causes. There’s no skin, there’s no nudity, there are no two bodies in frame, it’s all focused on faces and from the female’s perspective, from Clare’s perspective. It’s important that we see these horrific crimes and acts of pure violence are not just something being done to a body, they are something being done to a human being and the emotional fallout from that is devastating.

“There is so much violence on TV and film and we become incredibly desensitised to it because you can frequently distance yourself from it or disengage from it in some way whether because it’s in a comical setting or if it’s set in some fantastical land or because you don’t get to connect with the victim. In ours we wanted to make sure that you connect with your victim, you see the emotional impact and that you understand truthfully how horrific violence is. It’s not something that should be there just for entertainment.

“If we really want to make progress, we have to avoid cyclical violence: This idea of an eye for an eye. The resilience of Clare was just something that really struck me as well.

“Of course as well looking at how horrific colonialism is and how it strips tribes, people of their identity and how destructive and powerfully dehumanising it can be. Obviously it’s something that happened then, it’s something that is still happening now. I was fascinated by these questions through Clare’s story.”

The Nightingale is available on Apple TV, iTunes, Amazon Video, Sky Store, Virgin Movies, Google Play, Youtube Movies, Rakuten TV, Talk Talk TV, BT TV Store, Playstation Store, Microsoft Store, Curzon Home Cinema.

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