Two episodes into Ratched and I am yet to find a genuine link between the lead character and the one flawlessly portrayed by Lousie Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975.
Evan Romansky’s script, realised by producers / directors Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, is an ‘origin story’ with screen favourite Sarah Paulson as a young Nurse Mildred Ratched. How did she grow into the malevolent nurse in Ken Kesey’s novel, later dramatised by director Miloš Forman? It’s a book I read so long ago, I can barely remember any ‘backstory.’
In the new Netflix series it is 1947 in California. The young nurse Ratched pushes her way into an interview before Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) who is conducting radical experiments at a psychiatric hospital. She already crosses swords with Nurse Bucket (Judy Davis) who isn’t ready to have her authority challenged.
But Ratched is determined, with motives not fully apparent, who needles her way into the hospital when a local Governor (Vincent D’Onofrio) and his press secretary (Cynthia Nixon) commandeer media coverage at the asylum. Both opportunist and manipulator, Nurse Ratched seizes on an opportunity to wedge herself towards the top of the hospital hierarchy, where she begins more clandestine work.
Despite the aesthetic of art deco buildings, gleaming costumes (more teal than Wentworth) and rich art direction, beneath the veneer is Murphy darkness, not far removed from American Horror Story. Nurse Ratched operates in deception (should we have another origin story on how her personality got to this point?) and Paulson is expert at smiling while quietly smothering her babies, so to speak.
Judy Davis also strides through her scenes as the toppled head nurse -watch for a delicious scene where both argue over a lunchroom peach. Cynthia Nixon is also particularly memorable with an erotically-charged feast with oysters. It’s great to see Filipino-American Jon Jon Briones as the asylum doctor, while other roles go to Finn Wittrock, Charlie Carver, Hunter Parrish, Rosanna Arquette, Sharon Stone, Sophie Okonedo, Harriet Sansom Harris and Aussie Alice Englert.
Special mention too for composer Mac Quayle whose string-heavy score turn this into something akin to Warner Bros. Hollywood noir or Hitchcock.
Yet for all its grand monstrosity, this remains worlds apart from that of Louise Fletcher, Jack Nicholson & co. As with many Murphy productions, style often overwhelms substance, and the sheer melodrama of it all lacks the subversive horror of Forman’s 1975 classic. Which is not to say there is not fun to be mined from the sum of the parts. Murphy is nothing if not a master of theatrical.
The challenge for all, given the task undertaken, is whether like Fletcher & Forman, we will still be talking about this screen version in 45 years time. On that point, I rather think not, so just enjoy it for the moment.
Ratched begins today on Netflix.