While Jennifer Kent doesn’t have an extensive filmography, she is one one the most important female directors of this century. If we count only the works Kent wrote and directed, we end up with two feature films, The Babadook and The Nightingale, and “The Murmuring,” an episode in Guillermo del Toro‘s horror anthology Cabinet of Curiosities. What these three productions have in common that they evoke horror, real or imaginary, to explore what it means to be a mother. And they all prove no one understands motherly woes like Kent.
The three main entries in Kent’s filmography deal with motherly woes sensibly, without embellishing things for the sake of social constructs. That’s because Kent never echoes the twisted idea that a woman’s worth is measured by the role she plays as a mother, but she’s also not so cynical as to take a stance against pregnancy and motherhood altogether. So, when we put all three productions together, we get a clear picture of how important the theme of motherhood is to Kent and how no other director is capable of dealing with it with such beauty and honesty.
‘The Babadook:’ Motherhood Can Be Monstruous
Kent feature directorial debut, The Babadook, took us all by surprise in 2014 and quickly became one of the most important horror films of the decade. The story follows a widowed mother (Essie Davis) who’s drained by the burden of raising a child by herself. While many claim children are the sunray that makes life brighter, there’s not much about how caring for another human being means planning every second of your waking life to fulfill another person’s needs. And when this person is a child, incapable of comprehending the sacrifices a mother makes, they can even behave like spoiled little brats, incapable of showing gratitude.
When we look at the reality of motherhood, it’s not hard to imagine many mothers regret having children. Some of them might even have destructive impulses they block in their subconsciousness, afraid of ever admitting they think about motherhood as anything but a blessing. And then comes The Babadook, turning a mother’s dark impulses toward her child into a supernatural monster, an entity that’s hunting a boy and trying to kill him.
While we are used to, as a society, think about motherhood as the ultimate goal of a woman’s life, The Babadook is a raw exploration of every negative aspect of having a child. And even if the message might be unnerving, the movie reflects on how it’s somewhat natural to wish to hurt the people we are supposed to love, seeing that they prevent us from enjoying our lives. The movie, however, doesn’t glorify child abuse, as it forces the main character to recognize she’s the source of the monster, and it’s her duty to lock it in the basement and keep it under control. In doing so, The Babadook underlines how parenthood still demands responsibility, but we shouldn’t restrain from discussing the charge of being a mother.
‘The Nightingale:’ The Loss of a Child Is Devastating
The Nightingale never got the same acclaim as The Babadook, mainly because the film’s depiction of rape, murder, and sexual violence understandably pushed away many viewers. Still, the movie is another spotless entry in Kent’s filmography. And while The Nightingale is a historical drama instead of a horror film, Kent still creates revolting and horrifying scenes to explore the tragedy of colonization in Australia.
There’s much to talk about The Nightingale and how it shines a light on the racial tensions caused by colonization and the brutality of this dark period in history. It’s essential to notice, however, how the main character of The Nightingale is once again a mother (Aisling Franciosi). Contrary to The Babadook, though, The Nightingale explores how far a mother would go for revenge after her child is murdered in front of her eyes. The Babadook is all about the weight of raising a child and its toll on women’s mental health. The Nightingale, on the other hand, is about the unconditional love a mother can feel for her children and how losing a child can forever change her sense of self.
Beneath the brutality of The Nightingale, there’s a tender story of a woman in pain after losing her baby. And even if she first responds to this tragedy with violence, before the credits roll, she must also confront her grief and try to find ways to move on with her life. The Nightingale is a difficult movie, filled with pain and hard-to-watch scenes. Even so, underneath it all lies a touching story of a grieving mother. As so, it expands on Kent’s exploration of motherhood, complementing The Babadook by showing there are many ways a child can scar a woman for life.
“The Murmuring:” There Are Many Ways to Be a Mother
While del Toro wrote the original story used to develop The Murmuring, Kent wrote its script and directed the episode. As a result, the story is once again focused on motherly woes. The Murmuring follows Nancy (Essie Davis), an ornithologist that goes to a deserted island with her husband (Andrew Lincoln) to study flocks of birds. The couple is sheltered in the only house on the entire island, an old mansion that used to be the home of a single mother (Hannah Galway). Soon, Nancy begins to see her ghost in the mansion, leading the scientist to question her beliefs and deal with her own trauma.
Nancy lost her child one year before the research trip began and hasn’t been able to deal with her grief because she doesn’t know how to correspond to society’s expectations of how a grieving mother should behave. Simultaneously, the ghost she sees in the mansion belongs to a woman who was kept alone and desperate as her family tried to hide the shame of a pregnancy out of wedlock. The woman kills her son when her mind shatters under the pressure of being left alone to take care of a child without anyone’s support and as her life slipped between her fingers.
The scientist and the ghost have a few things in common. They are both mothers, they both lost their children, and they both feel punished by society for not behaving as everyone expects them to. While there are decades separating the two women, not much has changed regarding motherhood and people’s prospects about how a woman should live her life. One woman killed her own son, and the other suffered a loss she couldn’t prevent. But they both suffer in ways only a mother can because, regardless of their desires, people will reduce their existence to motherhood and demand them to act according to twisted social standards.
Despite all the love that might come from having a child, there are many ways a mother can suffer due to social norms. The Babadook shows how cruel the process of raising a child is when you don’t really want that. The Nightingale reveals the brutality of taking a child from a loving mother just to punish her. Finally, “The Murmuring” explains how motherly expectations can get in the way of grief and love. Kent’s work bares the human soul in front of our eyes, and by focusing on mothers, her productions become essential to understanding motherly woes.