Despite Catherine Linstrum’s feature directorial debut Nuclear being elevated by an excellent performance from lead Emilia Jones and coupled with some stunningly lonesome cinematography, it falters with its frustratingly ambiguous story.
Brutalised, traumatised teenager Emma (Emilia Jones) and her mother (Sienna Guillory) are on the run from a harrowing past. Seeking refuge in a remote village, she meets a mysterious boy (George MacKay) who may be more than he appears. As Emma grows closer to him, fascinated by his obsession with the defunct nuclear power plant that poisons the lake water. She soon realises that to overcome her fears. She must face the toxic, terrifying past which is determined to catch up with her.
Linstrum and co-writer David-John Newman, slowly feed us information on the backstory of Emma and her mother, we learn that Emma’s father has separated from the family and in Romania. Her brother has been abusive before. Emma is the one who continually has to pick up the pieces in the family. Her enduring ability to do so is waning as she gets worn down from the situation. Emma’s mother is on her journey of realisation as she recovers in the house, often alone, or so Emma thinks. She is fearful for her daughter, unsure of where the future is going to take them. This slow drip method of delivering information would work better if more was going on in the film. Alas, Nuclear goes so slowly after that strong opening act, that you are almost begging for new information to help understand where the film may be taking us.
Linstrum and cinematographer Crystal Fournier have perfectly encapsulated the deserted nature of Snowdonia. The lingering shots out into the wild cause you to think you see something, even if there is nothing there for now. The work here allows us to feel the paranoia and fear that Emma’s mother has in her “safe house”. We both want Emma to experience this beautiful land. But to also not stray too far from her mother and the direction shows that. Shots such as seeing Emma cross a bridge towards the town are purposely further away from the start to show how alone Emma is in her current position. That when she leaves the safety of that house, she is on her own with no one to protect her. However, the sparse countryside also represents freedom.
Emma has newly found freedom from her brother and all of the danger that he brings into her life. Her new “home” could very well be the start that she and her mother needed. The feeling of loneliness if rife in Nuclear. Be it with Emma coping with all of the events, or her mother coping with the attack. Even MacKays boy is alone, living in his van as he travels. These are people with wounds that are still healing, with no set time as to when they will fully close over.
A brilliantly telling note is how the mood of Nuclear changes starkly when we reach night time. The house is full of shadows, only the moonlight or lights from outside fill the house. You sense someone is there, even when we know they are. The quick shots of the broken windows help the audience feel that someone has entered the safety of the home. We fear that something will happen only during this time of the day for this is when Emma is truly on her own. She is awake at night watching over her mother, wondering what is next. Nervousness and a sense of foreboding come forth each night.
Emilia Jones is particularly strong here having to try and look after herself and live some sort of life and to experience some sort of freedom around the boy. Yet, she knows she also has to guide her mother back to some level of calmness after the attack. She lashes out in frustration at her mother, but she is just a teenager and she doesn’t know how to handle the situation. Her mother has obviously had past issues and she is left to cope with it all and it just too much for her. She carries the film and when the realisation strikes her on what has happened it is haunting. Jones plays Emma with assuredness that goes well beyond her years and cements herself as an actor to keep an eye on.
In the final act, Emma has to overcome her fear and sense of grief of attacking her brother. She has to let go of what happened and in the truth that is the entire basis of Nuclear. Acceptance and letting go. Questions remain, however, as plot holes are rife throughout the story. MacKay is built to be an important aspect of the film. Yet he is on the periphery throughout and returns only when required. It is a shame and one of many frustrations in the film.
Nuclear falters quite heavily when you realise that the story is not fully fleshed out. We have the basics set and they are quite strong, but the middle flaps as there simply isn’t enough going on. This lack of development in the story and the characters almost derails the film. Luckily for Nuclear and the audience, the fine performances from Jones and Guillory carry the film.
Also when we realise the truth, it confuses the audience as we see things that we really shouldn’t have in reality. This confusion dilutes the story as it sets up false narratives that are not needed to confuse the audience and frustrate it. Especially considering that there is not enough happening on screen to warrant this fake direction.
A tale of what could have been hovers over Nuclear like a dark cloud. The direction is great from Linstrum in her debut and the performances elevate the picture. It is just a shame the story isn’t fully there to overcome the what does work.
Nuclear is available on digital download from 9th November 2020.
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