Director: Ryan Murphy
Cast: Sarah Paulson, Judy Davis, Sharon Stone Finn Wittrock, Jon Jon Briones
Ryan Murphy’s eight-episode series on Netflix, Ratched, is a prequel to the book and the film, One Who Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest with brilliant Jack Nicholson playing a prisoner who feigns insanity so that he can be shifted to a psychiatric institution where he can spend his time in peace. But nurse Ratched there would not let that happen, and she unleashes her cruelty on inmates. Murphy’s creation is based on this character, although I do not find any similarity between the two Ractcheds. How did Murphy’s Ratched turn into a monster of sorts in the 1975 Milos Forman’s American movie, which in turn was based on a book penned by Ken Kesey with the same title.
In the latest series, Ratched (Sarah Paulson) is a kind woman out to save her brother, Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), from the execution that the Governor of the State is desperate to carry out as his winning ticket for re-election.
The story is set in 1947, and opens with Tolleson killing four priests as an act of revenge for a sexual crime they committed earlier. Caught and sentenced to death – with the Governor insisting that the man must not be given the more humane form of a lethal injection, but must be strapped to the chair and electrocuted – Tolleson is taken to a mental asylum in the seaside town of Lucia to evaluate whether he is fit for the execution. The institution is run by a dope addict, Dr Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), and his slavish head nurse, Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis).
It is into this asylum that Mildred Ratched weaves her way, pretending to be a qualified nurse, and soon makes herself indispensable. Her only motive is to save her brother, Tolleson, from death, and she tries this through some very questionable means. Of course, unlike the 1975 Ratched, our lady is kind and gentle, always saving patients from the horrible methods adopted in 1947 to cure them of their psychiatric illnesses, including homosexuality. (Incidentally, it is considered so even today by some.)
However, Tolleson’s haughtiness (including his sexual affair with a trainee nurse) makes his sister’s job all the more difficult. There are other sub-plots – like Ratched’s attraction for the Governor’s Press Secretary, and a peek into the nurse’s early years when she and her brother were abused in the foster homes they grew up. We also have a story on Mrs Osgood (Sharon Stone), whose son, she feels, has been a victim of a bad experiment conducted by Dr Hanover.
While some of these sub-plots do push the narrative, Ratched’s character gives us no clue for the kind of nurse she turns out to be in One Who Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Which is unlike what we saw in the recent Perry Mason series on Disney + Hotstar that looked like a prequel to the hero whom Erle Stanley Gardner created in his delightful courtroom dramas. Mason is a bumbling private investigator in the series and by the end of which he reinvents himself as a bright lawyer – whose spectacular arguments in Gardner’s books and some films have been a feast for me and many others.
Ratched fails to achieve this. Yes, the series unfolds in eye-catching settings. The hospital looks posh, its staff in neat uniforms and Dr Hanover always sporting designer striped suits. Lucia itself is quaintly picture postcard like. This plushness hides the good and the bad, the tortures (electric shocks and hydrotherapy)heaped upon the inmates in order to cure them. In all this, Ratched is angelic.
But how did she turn into what we see her in the Nicholson starrer? This is a huge failing on the part of the series in which each episode begins by stating that it is based on the character in One Who Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest!
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is author, commentator and movie critic)