(Reading time: 5 mins.)
The colonies have been striking back at the Empire in film for some time and why not? Sure the Empire’s been colonising them all over again for decades, also through film.
But for a long time the liberal anti-colonial script-writers couldn’t bring themselves to make the main heroes of the film the indigenous colonised in Africa, America, Asia or Oceania – or else the finance backers doubted they’d recover their investment.
So the situation of the colonised had to be seen through the eyes of a liberal hero of European background or ancestry1 — someone with which, as they thought the the white European audience could identify2.
Stories figuring the Europeans colonised by England, i.e the Irish and the Scots, many who were in turn used by the Empire to colonise the lands of others — gets the film-makers over that difficulty.
Script-writers and casting directors in that ex-colony-now-superpower have been getting back at the English for years, of course, in historical drama3 but also portraying their villains with English accents4. Posh accents at first and then regional and London-Cockney5.
But rarely against the Irish, being often heroes in US films, providing they are Irish-Americans, which is to say Irish UStaters.
Two productions I’ve watched recently had as heroes people exported by the Empire from their own conquered homelands to other conquered colonies, in each case forming alliances with indigenous people.
Both productions have also given coverage to native languages of the indigenous people and, in one of them, also to a fair bit of the Irish language, spoken and sung.
THE NIGHTINGALE IN TASMANIA
The Nightingale (2018) is set in the British colony of Tasmania in 1825. In that period, which is not the main story, the Black War took place, in which an estimated 600-900 indigenous Tasmanians were killed, nearly wiping out their entire population. The killers were British colonial armed forces and settlers.
Political or social prisoners in the UK6 of the period were often transported to serve their time in penal colonies where, if they survived, they could be freed upon completion of their sentences or even earlier by agreement but to return was impossible unless they could purchase passage home.
Clare — “The Nightingale”, so nicknamed for her singing voice — is one such social prisoner, an Irish woman convicted of stealing and transported to Van Diemen’s land to serve her time.
She is part of the household staff of a British officer stationed there but is permitted to marry a free Irishman, Aidan; they live together in a hut and have a child together. The officer desires Clare and acts violently upon that desire, giving rise to a chain of tragic events.
Clare sets out to track the officer down and wreak revenge upon him but, needing a tracker-guide, employs an indigenous Tasmanian for that purpose. The story then is not only about her journey but about the uneasy relationship between these two victims of colonialism and occasional glimpses of other aspects of colonial rule, particularly in Tasmania.
IRISH, SCOTS AND INDIGENOUS
Frontier (2016) was originally a series for Television and, like The Nightingale, found a home later on Netflix. It features Irish and Scots heroes against the British Authorities and military.
It is set in British Canada in a historical struggle for control of the fur trade between the Hudson Bay Trading Company, a monopoly jealously protected by the UK, and a consortium of trappers striving for independence in trade.
The indigenous people are represented too, with a female warrior and communities, speaking Cree and a number of other Indigenous languages, including Inuit, with subtitles providing a translation.
The main hero is Declan Harp (now there’s names with an Irish connection!) who is half-Cree and half-Irish; after his parents were killed, he is adopted by Benton, the British administrator of the area but Harp later grows to hate Benton, who had his wife and child murdered.
A lesser male hero and ally is Michael, totally Irish but with a shaky moral compass. The main female heroes are a Cree warrior/ hunter and a Scottish woman, owner-manager of a tavern.
A female sort of anti-hero is a wealthy English woman of aristocratic type and there’s an Irish woman of humble background, being schooled to be “a lady”. There are a number of male Scottish anti-heroes too and there’s a Metis (of mixed Indigenous and French [or Breton or Basque?] parentage) helper, trapper and guide.
The Frontier has a couple of villains of US-origin but that’s allowed, this is Canada after all, its domination taken over by the USA from England. Otherwise nearly all the bad characters, the “black hats”, are English and so too with The Nightingale.
The British soldiers in both stories have regional English accents but so do some of their lower-ranking officers. Most of them are brutal and drunkards, some also murderers and rapists. Anti-English propaganda? No doubt but from what we know of history and even of more contemporary colonialism, very likely true enough.
Reviews have praised Jason Momoa’s portrayal of Declan Harp in The Frontier and certainly his physical size and appearance (long tangled locks, one eye clouded, looking out under lowered eyebrows) does focus one’s attention.
Personally I found the number of times he survives torture, serious beatings and wounds straining credulity and, in a way, tending towards boring, as though the Director or screenplay writer thought: Let’s get Declan to have another massive bloody fight here, we haven’t had one of those in a couple of episodes now.
However, even with at times difficult-to-believe plot turns, there are some excellent performances, chiefly perhaps and not surprisingly Alun Armstrong as Lord Benton and Shawn Doyle as the ruthless smoothly urbane but underneath volcanic Samuel Grant
Greg Bryk as Grant’s smooth and sinister manservant-lover Cobbs Pond puts in effective performances too. Evan Jonigkeit as Captain Chesterfield, is also good, particularly in his anguished frustrated desire for the tavern owner Grace Emberly (Zoe Boyle), and his burning desire to rise above his social station.
Jessica Matten is believable as the Cree warrior-hunter Sokanon, despite her gender being unlikely in that role, but her frowning expression grows repetitious after a while.
Katie McGrath played the plotting and provocative English aristocrat Mrs. Carruthers well in her unfortunately short run as a character (but Wardrobe and Sequence, would she wear the same lace-sleeved undergarment so many day in a row?).
The female who develops something of a penchant for killing violent dominating males and disposing of their bodies is an interesting character creation though her appearances in that role are few.
When Declan Harp commandeers a ship to take him and McTaggart (Jamie Sives) to Scotland to rescue Grace and avenge himself on Lord Benton, we are introduced to a Portuguese ship captain and a Polynesian mariner, the latter also singing and praying in his native language.
In Scotland, Harp recruits local toughs to attack the English Castle Benton where Lord Benton has taken residence and they kill many redcoats.
STEREO OR TRUE-TYPES
The main characters in The Nightingale are of course the vengeful woman Clare (Aisling Franciosi), her aboriginal guide and companion ‘Billy’ (Baykali Ganambarr), along with the British Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claffin) and Sergeant Ruse (Damon Herriman) she pursues.
All are believable characters with strong performances by the actors. England is an evil bastard in this story, represented by the officer Hawkins and sergeant Ruse but some decent English individuals make their appearance on occasion too.
The dialogue is mostly English but the Tasmanian language spoken and sung in the film is Palawa Kani. Some Irish is spoken between Aidan and Clare, the latter singing mainly English folk songs but to her child sings the Irish language lyrics of Cailín Álainn to the Scottish air of the Mingalay Boat Song7.
Speaking their own language makes the subjects their own people; speaking English, usually badly or with heavy un-English accents, though making them more intelligible to English fluents also presents them to the English-speaker as lesser-English, lesser-UStater, lesser-Canadian — in total: lesser human.
1 For example the plight of the Cheyenne in 1864 was represented in Soldier Blue through the eyes of the European woman Cresta Lee (Candice Bergin); it’s the liberal newspaper editor Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) who we accompany as we follow the story of the hero Biko in Cry Freedom, murdered by the South African white minority regime. Even in the British colony in Ireland, where the natives are white, the heroes may be English (Brian Cox playing an honest English cop in Hidden Agenda, Emma Thompson as the lawyer in Name of the Father).
2 When the promoters and financiers finally realised that a large part of their paying audiences were not in fact white European is when one started to see heroes of other backgrounds and ‘blacksploitation’ films.
3 Mel Gibson’s The Patriot and Bravehart, for example but going much further back, Disney’s The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966).
4 For examples Grand Moff Tarkin in original Starwars trilogy (1977-1983), Steven Berkoff in Beverly Hills Cop (1994), Scar in The Lion King (1994), arguably Anthony Hopkins [though Welsh and playing a Lithuanian] in Silence of the Lambs (1991), Sher Khan in The Jungle Book (1996) and sequel.
5 Tim Roth in Pulp Fiction (1994).
6 Not just the British – the French had their penal colonies abroad, for example in Guyana and the Spanish state sent prisoners to Ceuta, in North Africa even in modern times.
7 An anachronism, since the composer of the Irish lyrics of An Cailín Álainn is Tomás ‘Jimmy’ Mac Eoin from An Bóthar Buí in An Cheathrú Rua, Conamara, Galway, Ireland – and he was only born in 1937. The lyrics of the Mingalay Boat Song are also apparently sung to a much older air and one supposes the original lyrics would have been in Gaedhlig.