As the imperturbable Nurse Ratched in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Louise Fletcher easily held her own opposite Jack Nicholson at his most dynamically dangerous. Not the sort of carer anyone would wish to clap for, Ratched represented oppressive femininity tamping down male imaginative freedom, as Nicholson’s mental patient McMurphy sought to outwit a cruel, repressive system. Big Nurse was Big Mommy, forever ordering little boys to be obedient, show respect and not play with their winkies.
Given that she is an archetype, and a misogynistic one at that, perhaps the least interesting question is what made her that way. But the creators of the new Netflix series Ratched, Evan Romansky and Ryan Murphy, have had a stab at giving her a back-story — and stab is the operative word.
It opens in 1947, with the gruesome multiple murder of a household of priests. Awaiting trial, Edmund Tolleson, the buff young man known to the press as the “Nutso Clergy Killer”, is dispatched to a Californian mental hospital renowned for its innovative treatments. Following swiftly down the coastal roads like a vulture spotting carrion is the mysterious Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson). Her medical credentials may be dubious, but without so much as a formal interview, she’s taken on by the institute’s susceptible director, Dr Hanover (Jon Jon Briones). Head Nurse Bucket (wonderful Judy Davis, rattling around like a furious little marionette) has found a formidable adversary.
With its strong female characters, garish plot, gleaming visuals and febrile atmosphere, the style is that of a lavish, mid-century melodrama, accompanied by a score in which no strings are left unswept nor chords uncrashed. The sanatorium resembles a luxurious hotel, with deep sofas, floral arrangements and turquoise staff uniforms.
Lipstick is slashed with no concern for the outline of the mouth, waists are nipped and skirts full, elaborate hats will be worn at lunch and cocktails drunk at any time of day. At one point Cynthia Nixon, the Bette Davis to Paulson’s Joan Crawford, introduces the enigmatic new nurse to the voluptuous delights of the oyster: “Now swallow!” We don’t need our copies of Freud when Mildred shuns the bivalve.
Sexual dysfunction is pinned on Mildred’s chest as prominently as a nurse’s timepiece. Her weapons include Munchausen-by-proxy and an uncanny ability to sniff out staff peccadilloes as she prowls the white-tiled corridors. Enraging her landlady (Amanda Plummer, bonkers) and outwitting Bucket present no challenge, but the advent of Sharon Stone at least promises a decent cat-fight. Stone plays an embittered multi-millionairess with a grudge against Dr Hanover; though when you see what he did to her demented son, “grudge” is not really the right word.
Ratched is as subtle as an ice-pick to the skull, but like Hanover's procedures, it is executed with some panache.
On Netflix from Friday
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