Warning: This article contains discussions of rape.
There were tense scenes at the Aussie premiere of a brutal historical drama in Sydney last night — with punters walking out during numerous visceral rape scenes and yelling out criticism.
Aussie film The Nightingale, directed by Jennifer Kent, was screened as part of the Sydney Film Festival last night to a sold-out audience of more than 1000 people at the Ritz cinema in the city's east.
The unflinching rape-revenge story, set in 1825, is centred on a young Irish convict woman who chases a British officer and his band of cronies through the rugged Tasmanian bush with the help of an indigenous guide.
Upon being shown at international festivals, it has been lauded by critics as a confronting and powerful piece of cinema that transcends the traditional boundaries of a revenge thriller.
However, it was clear some in Sydney last night didn't feel the level of sexual violence was warranted in telling the story of Clare, the film's 21-year-old protagonist.
In setting up the tale of revenge, the first section of the film confronts the audience with long, drawn-out scenes of her being raped by several men over several scenes.
By the third rape scene in the first 20 minutes, some of those watching on in horror in the Ritz had enough.
Through the tortured on-screen screams, cinemagoers walked out, and some even yelled out criticism, as the director sat among the audience after introducing the film.
As there was a lull in the on-screen horror, one woman could be heard screaming: "She's already been raped, we don't need to see it again."
Punters also walked out during later scenes in the film that showed horrific levels of violence towards babies, children and mainly indigenous people — with close-up shots of faces being mashed up, brutal stabbings and even more drawn-out rapes.
Sydney cinemagoers aren't the only ones who have taken issue with some of the film's most provocative scenes, with critics asking whether the level of detail is necessary and noting audience members are walking out.
"Vacuum-packing a non-stop supply of rapes, deaths and beatings into more than two hours is needlessly punishing and comes at the expense of character and story," New York Post critic Johnny Oleksinski wrote.
"Constantly having to shield your eyes from horrible imagery — as the Sundance audience was — would seem to defy the whole point of watching a movie."
FilmEra critic Chris Shortt called The Nightingale a "gruelling and grossly offensive misfire".
"(Director) Kent subjects us to a disturbing frequency of rape scenes to the extent that it soon stops feeling like a jolt of brutal honesty and quickly becomes indulgent," he wrote.
"If we weren't aware of the historical atrocities committed by British soldiers across the colonies already, we certainly are by the fourth rape scene. What, then, of the fifth or the sixth?"
Despite the criticism, The Nightingale received a sustained round of applause as the credits rolled at the Ritz last night.
Introducing her work, Kent told the audience putting together the film was the toughest thing she'd ever had to do, and the majority of critics had lauded the historical piece for its unflinching style — earning it the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival last year.
In a Q&A session with Kent after last night's screening, she was asked what she would say to the audience members who walked out.
She said she "totally understands" why people would react in that way and they had "every right" — but added she felt like she "needed" to include scenes of such horror so as not to soften the brutality of that period in history.
She said filming the scenes was "heartbreaking", and she cried throughout the process, all the way through to post-production.
Critics who rated The Nightingale positively admitted it was hard to watch — but that was the point, as it captured the horror of Australia's colonial past.
"I don't think that any review can mentally, physically, or emotionally prepare you for what Kent has brought to life with this film," wrote Scott Menzel of We Live Entertainment, giving the film 9.5 stars out of 10.
"The Nightingale is a very difficult watch but packs quite an emotional punch."
Criticism of the film comes as the portrayal of rape and its use as a narrative tool in television and film is being debated.
As the final season of Game of Thrones aired last month, actor Jessica Chastain wrote on Twitter a woman shouldn't have to survive the worst possible experiences in order to flourish.
"Rape is not a tool to make a character stronger," she wrote in the post that has gone viral. "A woman doesn't need to be victimised in order to become a butterfly."