There are many striking images in The Power, but the one that stands out most clearly is a painting.
A little cartoon girl, staring wide-eyed from the wall of a paediatrics ward, her finger pressed tightly to her lips. It’s just one of many unnerving details in the sprawling 1970s London hospital complex where Val (Rose Williams) starts her new job as a nurse — but as she soon discovers when her long first day stretches into the nightshift, it barely scratches the surface of the building’s rotten core.
Set in 1974 at a time when a war between trade unions and the UK government is leading to planned blackouts each night, The Power is a claustrophobic film in which draconian regulations abound and figures of authority rule with an iron fist. In Val’s very first meeting with a stony-faced hospital matron, she’s told in no uncertain terms to do as she’s told if she wants to fit in and that she shouldn’t even speak to the doctors because “they communicate above your level.”
Writer/director Corinna Faith’s dialogue expertly sets up the film’s oppressive tone, establishing an atmosphere of silence and obedience which is used to devastating effect as the movie progresses.
Another thing that’s established early on is a grim vein of misogyny. One of the first lines of dialogue is a “morning, darling” growled to Val by a faceless man as she walks to the hospital for her first shift, and the level of threat she experiences from men only grows worse from there. Through day-to-day interactions, Faith makes it clear that the nurses in the hospital are frequently objectified and mistreated, with the film — despite its ’70s setting — feeling more relevant than ever today.
And within all of this, lurking amongst real-world threats, lies the horror — the faceless presence that lurks in the hospital. Faith pushes us to confront this with shaky, lamplit journeys down black corridors, and lingering shots of dark cupboards, constantly building tension that ramps up as Val’s now-dreaded nightshift begins. The nightly blackouts that form the film’s backdrop mean that the majority of patients are relocated at the end of the day, with only a couple of hospital wards remaining operational. The rest of the building is plunged into oppressive darkness. It’s the perfect setup for building a creeping sense of dread, in other words, and Faith does this with a deft hand. There are plenty of jump scares, too, but these never feel gratuitous — like all the best scary films, The Power‘s horror is used to draw out the movie’s main themes, rather than wielding them for mere shock value.
All in all, the film is pretty hard to fault. The performances are excellent all-round, with Rose Williams showing off incredible range in the central role. Perhaps the only thing I wanted to see more of was the other characters, all brilliantly developed, with their few scenes of dialogue so well-constructed that I could happily have watched more of them.
But then again, maybe the minimalism works best. After all, The Power isn’t a film about free-flowing conversation — it’s a film about silence, and being silenced.
The Power is available on Shudder from April 8.