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TIFF 2022 Review: The Good Nurse – “Intense and thought-provoking”

Courtesy of TIFF

Adapted by Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Oscar nominated for 1917) from a book by Charles Graeber, The Good Nurse tells the true story of Charles Cullen, a man who killed at least 29 patients under his care (and likely hundreds more), and the nurse who helped bring him to justice.

It’s 2003 in a hospital in New Jersey.  Amy (Jessica Chastain) is working her usual night shift, a way that as a single mother she can provide for her family, and still be home for her two young daughters in the morning before school.  The hospital is understaffed and overworked, like so many, and Amy is struggling.  Anything that is highly physical results in her being out of breath.  She has cardiomyopathy, and the doctors are telling her she’s at high risk of a stroke.  She needs a transplant.  Despite working in a hospital, it’ll be months before she actually qualifies for health insurance at this job, so she needs to get through that time period until she can get the treatment she needs.

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She is relieved when Charles (Eddie Redmayne) comes on board to help staff her shift.  He’s experienced, charming, and empathetic, not only to his patients, but also to her.  When he discovers her health issues, he is only too happy to help.  His ultimate goal is to get her to the day when her health insurance will kick in.  The two strike up an affable friendship.  That is, until there starts to become an inordinate amount of deaths in the ICU department.  With the hospital administration stepping in to help cover things up, Amy starts chatting to the two detectives on the case (Nnamdi Asomugha, Noah Emmerich) who have noticed a pattern but whose efforts to investigate are being blocked.  For Amy, despite her suspicions that Charles might be the culprit, she needs to step in before any other patients are harmed, even if it means harm for herself.

For his American feature debut, Tobias Lindholm has chosen a compelling story that deals not only with the horrible actions of Charles Cullen, but also highlights the broken American health care system.  Reminiscent of the recent limited series Dr. Death (starring Joshua Jackson and Alec Baldwin), which also portrayed the lengths to which hospitals and associations will go to cover up negligent and even intentionally harmful behaviour, The Good Nurse follows a similar yarn.  Cullen was allowed to move from hospital to hospital without any ramifications, each one letting him go without pursuing actions that could open them up to liability.  It’s mind-blowing that this is allowed to happen endangering patient safety.

Equally staggering is the inability of Amy to get proper health care despite the fact she works in a hospital. Now, I’m Canadian, where health care is universal so this is particularly incomprehensible to me, but the fact that health care workers themselves cannot obtain care they might need is shocking.  Above and beyond the details of Amy’s brave actions regarding Cullen, she put her life on the line each and every nursing shift both to provide for her family, but also because of the incredible compassion she had for her patients.

The Good Nurse is a relatively straightforward medical thriller.  It is buoyed by excellent turns from Chastain, in a role quite different from her Oscar-winning performance in The Eyes of Tammy Faye last year, and Redmayne who plays Cullen with a gentle thoughtfulness.  He’s the one you’d least expect, walking down the hallways, innocuous, slumped shoulders and quiet footsteps. Cullen, for all his horrible deeds, is never particularly outwardly sinister – perhaps making him even more dangerous and, in the end, chilling.

A bit over-long, The Good Nurse doesn’t need its full two hours to tell this story.  It is a slow burn, though it’s never stagnant, but perhaps some faster pacing in parts would have elevated the film.  That said, the subject matter is intense and thought-provoking, and above and beyond the atrocities that Cullen performed, it opens discussion on the broken systems in place.  Ultimately though, it highlights a real-life hero in Amy, who deserves every accolade, and reminds us that in the end compassion and goodness really can win over evil – whether that evil is a single man, or an entire bureaucratic system.

The Good Nurse premiered September 11th at the Toronto International Film Festival.  It will be released on Netflix October 26, 2022.

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