Sarah Paulson reunites with American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy to delve into the origins of one of the most iconic antagonists in cinematic history. Originally brought to life by Oscar winner Louise Fletcher in Miloš Forman’s 1975 adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it would be easy to dismiss the upcoming eight part Netflix drama as yet another prequel. Murphy has however crafted a deliciously dark and highly suspenseful thriller which breathes a bit of humanity into the origins of “the angel of mercy”.
In the 1940s Lucia, California, Mildred Ratched arrives at a leading psychiatric hospital, seeking employment as a night nurse. Conveniently, the hospital has just received a new patient, Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), who has brutally murdered four priests. Ratched manipulates and blackmails her way into working at the hospital team, with her own secret agenda in tow.
American Horror Story fans have a lot to look forward to in Ratched. Sharing similar themes and story beats with acclaimed series “Asylum”, Murphy gives the iconic nurse a complex but surprisingly human backstory. It’s often dark, twisted and graphic like AHS; resulting in a tough watch at times, with chilling and explicit hydrotherapy and lobotomy “treatments”. Whilst delving into mental health, repercussions of trauma/abuse and LGBTQ+ issues, Murphy balances this with seductively sexy and darkly comic subplots. However as the series unfolds, there are a number of numerous intertwining threads surrounding the institution and it’s employees that begin to get somewhat convoluted.
Sarah Poulson exquisitely leads the hugely talented ensemble, bringing an impressive amount of depth and complexity to the once villainous character. Perfectly calm and calculated, yet also surprisingly caring and vulnerable; Ratched is motivated by a need to protect someone close to her, often carrying out heinous acts to do so. Poulson shares fantastic chemistry with co-stars Cynthia Nixon, closeted press secretary Gwendolyn and Judy Davis, the scene stealing Nurse Betsy Bucket. Sharon Stone is also on top form as Lenore Osgood, an ever fabulously dressed mother hell bent on revenge, complete with a pet monkey on her shoulder. Make no mistake though, the many charismatic characters all serve their own dark and dangerous agendas.
Murphy brings his signature old school aesthetic and ramps it up to 11, with sumptuous art-deco sets and meticulous production and costume design. Elegantly framed by wide shots, the grand building features lavish chandeliers, wonderfully tiled rooms and ever stylish furniture. There’s also an interesting use of colour, (particularly red and green), which Murphy uses to flood the frames, illuminating characters in certain states of lust and violence. A Bernard Herrmann-esque haunting score also ramps up the tension, along with the use of split screens and dizzying camera movements.
Bolstered by a gripping narrative and numerous fantastic female performances, Ratched is an exuberant and deliciously dark production. I didn’t know I needed a prequel, but with Poulson’s stellar performance, how could I say no to watching?
Ratched is on Netflix from 18 September.