Jennifer Kent is tired. It’s early evening. She’s had a full day of interviewers probing her motivations for her challenging new film The Nightingale, and not all of them have been pleasant.

“I feel like I’m dealing with a bunch of toddlers, all smashing up a room,” says Kent. “What are they even angry about?”

The Nightingale has taken a lot of people by surprise. Perhaps some were expecting the director of cult horror hit The Babadook to offer up another smart, macabre popcorn movie. What we get instead is a harrowing exploration of sexual assault, violence and revenge. A lot of the film’s press coverage focuses on the extreme audience reactions, like the widely reported walkouts at the Sydney Film Festival, and one critic at the Venice Film Festival who responded to the film with a sexist rant. But this film is so much more than that.

Let’s make it clear: The Nightingale is not an easy watch. It’s set during the Black War in 19th-century prison-colony Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). Young Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is living in indentured servitude to a British officer (Sam Claflin). After the officer rapes her and murders her husband and child, Clare employs an Indigenous tracker, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), and pursues her attacker through the harsh Tasmanian wilderness. It’s a raw, real film about the violence and pain we’re willing to inflict on one another.

On the brutality, Kent is unrepentant. “If people aren’t horrified and disturbed and shocked by this film, I haven’t done my job,” she says. “This is a war film. It’s a true film. It’s part of our history. And it’s still relevant today. People are so ready to be violent towards each other.”

The rape scenes are vile and unflinching, and the atmosphere of hatred and oppression is suffocating. During shooting there were clinical psychologists on hand to help cast and crew cope with the material. But film production is a long process, and as writer, director and producer, Kent has been living with this story day in, day out for three years. How has she coped with living with this story for so long? “At times, better than others,” she says. “On a day like today, not well.”

Most of Kent’s hardest days have come since its release. “I’ve been showing this film at festivals for a year, and I’ve had so much flak for making a film that frames sexual assault and violence in a disturbing and horrifying way. And yet in that time period there will have been thousands of films released with gratuitous, meaningless violence, purely for entertainment,” says Kent. “That’s disturbing to me.”

But The Nightingale is so much more than just a parade of violence. Amid all the darkness there are piercing moments of sunlight. At the heart of the film is a sense of growing understanding and compassion between the two leads. Out of violent circumstances, the pair finds trust. Billy discovers Clare isn’t a coloniser – she’s an Irish convict with just as much reason to hate the English as he has. And Clare discovers that Billy isn’t “Billy”: he’s Mangala, which is Palawa kani for “blackbird”, a defiant survivor of the massacre of his people.

“I’m in a bad space today, but even having a shitty day of it, I still think it’s important that filmmakers keep making these films,” says Kent. “I feel like people sit in a film and expect to be entertained. It’s like taking codeine. If they don’t get that, they feel angry. The villain must be vanquished. Crime can never pay, and the victims must end up victorious. That doesn’t happen in this film. There are no victors.”

Kent’s story doesn’t set up simple dichotomies of heroes and villains. The chain of violence is a complex one, with everyone acting out their role in a cruel system. Colonialism, Kent tells me, benefits no one. Neither does the extreme over-masculinisation of culture.

“One thing that drew me to Tasmania at that time was that it was something like eight to nine men to one woman,” says Kent. “Any society that is that imbalanced is going to have problems.”

Historical injustice is the film’s fuel, but for Kent the movie asks questions as relevant today as 200 years ago. Perhaps some of the shocked reactions to the film come from the confronting reminder that many of the problems it discusses haven’t been solved.

Sexual violence is an issue all over the world. “It does us no favours to turn way from it. So what are we going to do? Are we going to continue to sweep it under the carpet and hope that it stops happening?”

When racism and sexism are dealt with in period films it can allow audiences to believe those issues are things of the past; the audience leaves the theatre feeling that these problems are solved, contained to an unenlightened dark age. The Nightingale doesn’t let us off the hook like that.

“I think putting something in another period can create some distance, which is often good,” says Kent. “You’re creating a myth. Perhaps myth is the wrong word because it implies falsehood ... it creates something universal.”

Australians are often reticent to look at our foundational myths and our dark colonial past, I suggest to Kent. “It’s the whole world,” she says. “I’ve travelled with this film a lot. If we had the bravery to look at what we’re doing to each other we’d be horrified. That’s the whole point of the film.”

Kent turns the tables and puts some questions to me (rhetorical, I hope, because I have no answers). “What are we doing to each other? Without care, love, empathy, concern for even a stranger, how will we evolve? What are the other options?’

“There have to be some,” she says, “otherwise we’ll annihilate ourselves.”

The Nightingale is showing nationally in cinemas now.

Watch the trailer.