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Nurse-ry Crimes

Courtesy of TIFF

The Good Nurse (2022)

The main topic of “The Good Nurse,” which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, is healthcare under capitalism, while its subtext is the power of kindness. It’s important to make that explicit since there’s a worrying recent trend for audiences to interpret “based on a true story” to mean that what is shown on screen is exactly as things happened in real life. There is no longer tolerance for changes to serve a cinematic purpose (such as the third child in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) or in order to simplify complicated plots (such as when multiple characters are combined into one in almost any film). Netflix has pushed this “based on a true story” to new limits, by having the subject of the brand-new “A Friend of the Family” appear at the start to assure us it exists with her blessing. There is some argument for this – if someone made a movie about my life while I was still alive to see it, you had better believe I’d expect all my irritating opinions to be respected by the filmmakers. But there is also a strong case for a better understanding about the blurred lines inherent in any retelling – life is messy and complicated, and sometimes sanding the edges makes for a better story. On a less philosophical level, a better understanding of how fiction handles the truth would also cut down on spoilers, and more easily enable us to examine a piece of art on its own terms. Nothing is ever only about itself; there’s always subtext. “The Good Nurse” is also a Netflix film, and also based on a true story, but writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns (a Brit, ie someone from a nation with socialized healthcare) and director Tobias Lindholm (a Dane, also from a nation with socialized healthcare) are uninterested in sensationalizing suffering. For once we have a movie which minimizes its depiction of pain.

It’s 2003 and Amy (Jessica Chastain) is having a tough time. She’s the single mother of two young daughters, bringing them up with the help of a nanny named Jackie (Marcia Jean Kurtz). Amy spends the days with her daughters and nights working as a nurse on a critical care ward at a hospital in New Jersey, where her own health insurance doesn’t kick in until she’s worked there for a year. This is important because she is diagnosed with a serious heart defect, one that could cause a stroke if left untreated, which means she needs to lead a stress-free life until her insurance kicks in. Fat chance of that. Fortunately a new colleague, Charlie (Eddie Redmayne), joins her shift; and they quickly become fast friends, not least because Charlie witnesses one of Amy’s episodes and quietly takes care of her without snitching. They start hanging out outside of work – Charlie’s ex-wife doesn’t let him see his own daughters, so he enjoys being around Amy’s girls – and it looks like Amy has found someone to make her life easier at last.

But then a patient, a nice older lady with a nice husband, dies unexpectedly. A little later another patient, a nice lady with an infant daughter, dies too. Amy holds the baby as her husband screams his grief up and down the halls. The (offscreen) deaths are enough of a surprise the police are called in, but the hospital refuses to allow the officers (Noah Emmerich and Nnamdi Asomugha) to interview anyone without an administrator named Linda (Kim Dickens) present. She’s called out while they’re interviewing Amy; and Amy’s rapid assessment of a complicated medical chart lets the cops realize this death was not accidental. Linda does such a great job of stonewalling the police investigation Amy quickly becomes the only person at the hospital they trust. And Amy has to start wondering if one of her colleagues, maybe even Charlie, is responsible for those deaths.

Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, who did such a warm and welcoming job on “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” here stretches the word ‘clinical’ to its breaking point. The light is muted and the air somehow feels sealed in, like Amy’s world is one of those walk-in freezers in a restaurant kitchen. Doors and windows are a recurring theme: the sliding patient doors in the ward, the glass cupboards in which the medicine is kept, the glass on a vending machine. Diner windows, car windows. A grilled window in an interrogation room. But apart from a very few scenes at the end, most notably the one where Charlie throws a fit that will probably get memed to death, the entire focus is on Amy. Ms. Chastain, one of our most competent and understated actresses, is perfect for the part of an understated, competent woman. Amy likes her job and is good at it, so doesn’t complain about the bureaucracy. She likes her kids, so the hassles of parenting alone while working full-time are just something she has to deal with. And she likes Charlie; and Charlie likes her. Hence the movie.

Mr. Redmayne is an unusual actor, able to weaponize those cheekbones and that anxiety to please into something easy to overlook while being simultaneously otherworldly. (He is just about the only part of the “Fantastic Beasts” movies that needs no criticism.) As Charlie he has to be believable as someone who could immediately become the best friend you’ve ever had, but who could also be a murderer. This needs both a presence – the charm and the reliability to make friends so quickly – and an absence – where the human conscience should be – and Mr. Redmayne delivers. It’s another understated star turn, not least because it’s difficult to think of anyone else who could do it.

But Mr. Lindholm’s choice to keep things understated and workaday so expertly sugars the pill the movie vanishes without trace. Having healthcare administrators as the main villains of a movie about a serial killer is quite a choice, but in these miserable times it’s pretty relatable. (How many real-life people were combined into the character Ms. Dickens plays: Does it matter? Should it?) The idea that compassion is our best weapon against evil is not a new one, but it’s unusual to see a movie be so explicit that the American healthcare system causes as much evil as it prevents. (A more radical movie would have seen Amy and Charlie’s compassion as a valuable skill that can be taught and should be compensated as such, but baby steps.) However, realizing your best friend is probably a murderer isn’t something that happens every day; and “The Good Nurse” should have found a more resonant way to express that. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie, not at all. It just needed more human feeling.


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