Shudder UK film review: The Power (2021)
Speaking truth to patriarchy8
There's power in a union8
Anton Bitel | On 08, Apr 2021
Director: Corinna Faith
Cast: Rose Williams, Emma Rigby, Charlie Carrick, Clara Read, Paul Antony-Barber, Gbemisola Ikumelo
Where to watch The Power online in the UK: Shudder UK
The Power opens with a dream. Terrified little girl Val (Marley Chesham) is shut in a dark school closet, and a match is struck in front of her face revealing a grown man in there with her, lighting his cigarette – and then the adult Val (Rose Williams) is startled awake in her bed, and carefully turns all the lights on in her room.
It is January 1974, and amid radio reports of power cuts across the city owing to industrial action, the young woman, raised in a Christian orphanage, dresses for her first day working as a nurse at the East London Royal Infirmary. Still as timid as the little girl she once was, but hoping to get into paediatrics under kindly young Doctor Franklin (Charlie Carrick) to make a difference in the lives of other, marginalised children, Val finds herself quickly put in her place by the domineering matron (Diveen Henry), and is ordered to stay on for the nightshift. With the rest of the building evacuated for what is to be the longest blackout yet, Val will form part of a skeleton crew in the intensive care unit and the neonatal ward, with only a generator and some lamps keeping at bay the darkness that has scared her since she was a child.
Val’s nightmare is also a memory – even though, after speaking up about the incident in school, she was told that it never happened, that she made it up and that she must keep silent. She has tried to put it behind her, with only her subconscious insisting on reawakening it every night. Yet in the labyrinthine halls of the infirmary, where the Janitor (Robert Goodman) has wandering hands, where the young maintenance man Neville (Theo Barklem-Biggs) has an eye for the female staff, where former-schoolmate-turned-nurse Babs (Emma Rigby) again accuses her of lying as a child, and where a prominent poster reads “Don’t be silenced! Tell someone and stop sexual abuse”, Val’s old trauma finds its haunting echo, as something in the shadows keeps reaching out to her – something predatory and powerful, which recognises Val’s diffidence, weakness and compliance. Left to look after the young patient Saba (Shakira Rahman) who has stayed behind in the building, Val works overtime to protect the girl from this dark entity, even as she wonders if she may herself be the real danger.
Viewed simply as a collection of horror tropes in a creepy hospital setting, The Power is utterly terrifying, as it taps into one of our primal fears and reduces us all to children quivering in the dark. Yet this is also a political, psychological and feminist film, as Val’s long dark night of the soul becomes an empowering battle against the patriarchy. If the swaggering, priapic Neville keeps the walls of his workroom decorated with photographs of both the nurses and nude female pin-ups, writer/director Corinna Faith (Ashes, 2005) collects women in a far more salutary fashion, gathering around her a crew – including cinematographer Laura Bellingham, editor Rebecca Lloyd, production designer Francesca Massariol, art director Katherine Black, set decorator Elena Riccabona and costume designer Holly Smart – that is unusually and refreshingly strong on a female presence. The film may be concerned with men’s abusive behaviour and its lasting, repressive effects on women, but the gaze here is far from male.
As Val makes her way through the maze of corridors, her chief weapon against the enveloping darkness is a portable lamp – a literal gaslight which also comes with an apt metaphorical resonance, in a film where those women courageous enough to talk about their experiences get dressed down, contradicted and delegitimised by others.
“You’ll find speaking your mind is not popular around here,” Val is told by the more experienced nurse Terry (Nuala McGowan), who also objects to unions on the grounds that “they are never going to listen to a bunch of girls” – yet as the true source and nature of the evil in the infirmary slowly reveals itself, Val will come to realise that there is indeed power in a union, and will learn to find a supernatural solidarity with other sisters, and to express their sense of injustice in a single, corporate voice. For within the hospital’s halls, Val is engaging in a fight that mirrors the strike action outside – both actions aimed at collectively confronting authority and redressing inequality.
With Val gradually letting her hair down and allowing herself to become a willing vehicle for change, the dream of the film’s beginning is replayed and reversed, and the conspiracy of silence is broken – replaced with an uncanny, recriminatory scream of liberation, speaking truth to power. As a means to loudly addressing wrongs past and present, this is a ghost story conjured by the #MeToo movement, in which eventually the darkness is fully embraced.
The Power (2021) is available to stream online on Shudder UK, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, or £49.99 yearly membership.