A novice nurse with a troubled past, a power cut and a crumbling hospital with a dark secret in its walls. RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES looks at THE POWER 2021.
TITLE: The Power
RELEASED: 8th April 2021 (online), 27th September 2021 (Blu-ray/DVD)
STARRING: Rose Williams, Shakira Rahman, Emma Rigby, Gbemisola Ikumelo, Theo Barklem-Biggs, Diveen Henry, Charlie Carrick.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: Corinna Faith
January 1974: As power cuts hit Britain amidst industrial unrest, newly qualified nurse Val (Williams) heads to a London hospital for her first shift. She’s returning to the area where she grew up, with best intentions of making a difference in the deprived district.
Immediately suspicious that Val doesn’t have what it takes, a strict matron (Henry) makes it more than clear that the novice is on probation and when she manages to cause offence by overstepping her boundaries and engaging with one of the doctors, Val is put on what is known as the dark shift, which involves watching over a dilapidated intensive care ward, where Val finds herself having an uncomfortable reunion with Babs (Rigby): It seems the two were at school together, and weren’t exactly the best of friends.
When the power shuts down right on schedule, the hospital has its own generator to fall back on but when this source of electricity develops a fault and the wards are plunged into darkness, it’s just the kind of atmosphere that can set Val’s mind wandering to dark thoughts, as her troubled past is gradually revealed. It turns out that the bumps in the night and haunting visions to follow are not figments of her imagination…
It’s refreshing to have a period horror film which doesn’t take the easy route of having obvious visual signposts: The Power avoids kids on space hoppers, characters eating Spangles and a chain of chart hits pouring from transistor radios which can provide lazy signifiers for 70’s-set stories (although a blast of Middle Of The Road’s chart-topping earworm Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep later in the film is a disorientating and incongruous presence when it arrives).
Instead, long-time genre fans (and if you’re a regular visitor here you likely fall into that category) will need no more to set the period firmly than The Power’s instantly striking visual palette of muted and washed-out colours, which (whether by accident or design) can’t help but evoke the look and feel of the time’s homegrown genre movies and TV and provides an instant memory trigger of that peculiarly British strangeness of the time.
This is immediately established in an opening shot of protagonist Val, making her way to her debut nursing shift through a London street which is already foreboding enough before the sun has fully set and the power has been cut – she might just as easily be in a public information film, warning of the dangers of smog or walking alone at night, such does the scene capture the milieu.
The sharp contrasts between light and shadow on the screen welcomely harken back to Val Lewton’s horror cycle for RKO in the 1940’s and writer/director Corinna Faith clearly shares with Lewton’s directors a knack for getting under the viewers’ skins with horrors that are sensed rather than seen but is equally effective with the film’s economically used shock moments.
There’s a nice dynamic established between Val (Williams is a fantastic lead) and Saba (a remarkable debut by Shakira Rahman), a runaway girl who speaks little English but still forms a strong bond with the increasingly tormented nurse, as the details of sinister secrets held within the hospital and disturbing events covered-up by the establishment manifest themselves in visible, tangible form.
It might be argued that The Power 2021 is heavily weighed on the side of its female characters (I’ve even heard some comment that the film is misandrist, which is patently nonsense). Yes, the male characters in the film don’t come out with much credit, but this makes a salient point: People have either forgotten just how ingrained misogyny was in public services at that time, or (if they weren’t alive then) they’ve not done their homework and if it’s true that those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it (a hypothesis I concur with), The Power makes for a history lesson worth taking on board.
Putting aside historical context or social commentary, with its slow burning, genuinely under-the-skin chills, its brilliant evocation of a uniquely British period style, and some fine work from its cast and director (I’ll be watching Corinna Faith’s next move with interest), The Power is an impressive piece of work.
Meanwhile, The Power left this writer with an unexpected aftershock: I can’t seem to get Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep out of my head. Thanks for that, Corinna…
The Power 2021 is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms in the UK from Acorn Media on Monday, September the 27th.