The Power (2021)
Set in 1973, writer-director Corinna Faith’s feature debut tells of student nurse Val (Rose Williams) who is forced to work the night shift in an old Victorian hospital in London’s east end. Her first night coincides with scheduled power cuts across Britain as the result of miners’ strikes. With most of the patients and staff transferred to another hospital for the night, only a skeleton crew remains to look after two wards powered by a generator. It soon becomes apparent to Val, who harbours a deep fear of the dark stemming from abuse she suffered as a child, that they are not alone. Someone, or something, makes its terrifying presence felt as it stalks the young nurse through the darkened hallways of the hospital...
With its brilliantly simple yet chilling premise, The Power is an atmospheric slow-burn of a ghost story. Like all good ghost stories, this too is steeped in tragedy. Faith establishes a brooding, creepy atmosphere, initially keeping everything rather suggestive. The audience is invited to peer into the dark along with Val, anticipating what lurks in the shadows. Stealthy camerawork creates the impression Val and others are always being observed, crept up behind and stalked along silent, dark hallways. The editing works to convey a sense of Val’s disorientation, shock and confusion, while the nerve-shredding score, courtesy of Elizabeth Bernholz and Max de Wardener, enhances moments of alarm. As the story unfurls, Faith tightens the screws until tension becomes unbearable. With strong direction and nuanced writing, she eventually discards ambiguity concerning Val’s sanity - is she suffering from a psychotic breakdown or is this a genuine possession? – to tell a powerful feminist horror story of the survivor of corrupted innocence and institutional abuse.
While never exploitative or gratuitous, The Power is still a difficult watch in places, especially when the presence begins its attacks on Val, who has already suffered so many violations in her young life. The setting may be historical, but the story speaks to themes incredibly relevant today, not least the silencing of women’s voices and the #MeToo movement. Val and the other female characters are silenced by male authority figures who exploit their positions of power, and even by other women who themselves are trapped in an oppressive patriarchal system, too afraid of the consequences of speaking up for themselves or in defence of another. They are ignored, dismissed, accused of lying, and belittled. There is a clear separation between men and women – the doctors are all male, frequently seen gathered in corridors whispering conspiratorially. Val is told not to even speak to them, as ‘they operate on a higher level than us.’ Aggressive and toxic masculinity manifests frequently, the uneasy horror of which is perfectly conveyed in the moment when Val is casually groped by a male janitor in a lift full of other people. Sometimes predatory natures are less obvious, but when they are revealed, it has a powerfully sinister impact.
There are some moments of light relief. Northern Irish nurse Terry (Nuala McGowan) is seen reading a copy of Stephen King’s Carrie and quips “It’s about a girl who’s had enough and burns it all down.” This not only speaks to the themes of the screenplay, but to Val’s own character trajectory – she is gradually finding her own voice after years of being told to shut up and lie about what happened to her. Spoiler alert: Parallels between Val and the spectral entity become evident – both are/were described as ‘difficult’ young girls and suffered abuse at the hands of men in positions of power. Both were ignored and called liars when they spoke out and sought help. The scene when Val is leaving the canteen as the lights in the building begin to switch off is immensely chilling, not just because we know she’s terrified of the dark, but when she exclaims ‘No! It’s too soon’ we know she means there’s never a good time to face your fears, or work through the past... As Val, Rose Williams delivers a powerful performance, effortlessly conveying Val's journey as she evolves from a meek and timid young woman who has experienced unspeakable cruelty in her life, to someone who fights tooth and nail to break the lifetime of silence that has suffocated her. Her determination to ensure a similar fate does not befall Saba (Shakira Rahman), a young girl who constantly tries to run away from the ward, drives much of the third act. The climax, when it comes, is suitably powerful, full-throated and cathartic.