Digital Review: Nuclear (2019)

It’s an explosive, dramatic title and one that implies more significance, yet it’s also deliberately ambiguous. Does it simply refer to the disused nuclear power station that dominates the landscape, its faceless walls and cold lights at odds with the beautiful yet bleak landscape around it? Or is it more about the story itself, one of domestic abuse, violence and trauma? Or both? It’s difficult to tell and that’s part of Nuclear‘s problem – and part of its appeal.

Emma (Emilia Jones) rescues her mother from a vicious attack by her step-brother and the two escape in the dead of night. After crashing their car, they discover an isolated house, used as a religious retreat, and hide out there. Emma makes friends with a boy camping out in a nearby field and becomes fascinated by his reason for being there – he climbs tall buildings and plans to scale the heights of the nearby dis-used nuclear power station. But all the time the shadow of her step-brother and what he did hangs over her and her mother.

That surface storyline belies what is, in fact, an ambiguous film, one that at times seems uncertain about what it wants to be. It’s almost as if there are several stories merged into one, but they’re not always a good fit and the result is lumpy and, at times, baffling, with the audience being taken in one direction, and then another. The sense of mystery that goes with its effectively brooding atmosphere has a tendency to veer into the confusing and baffling.

That atmosphere is helped by the isolated landscape, the moody lighting and the cold presence of the former power station, but the actual thrills to go with it are sparse. The domestic abuse storyline at the start works well enough, drip feeding us the backstory that goes with it and introducing us eventually to the perpetrator. It’s a little over-familiar, although Emilia Jones’s terror when confronting him is real enough. But there’s another element bolted on, all trauma. How much of what we are seeing is in Emma’s mind, caused by her experiences, and how much of it is real? Although, as the film unfolds, we’re given the answer, it’s one that comes with a multitude of questions and, disappointingly, a plot hole or two.

All those questions make for an ending which feels rushed and contrived. It’s asking much of the two best known names in the cast, MacKay and Jones, for them to keep the film on track, but thankfully he’s suitably enigmatic, while she is nicely tense, showing there’s more to her than her comedy turn in Horrible Histories. But, in truth, there’s nothing explosive on any level about Nuclear. The power station at the heart of it has been shut down and the film may have the same effect on you.

★★ 1/2

Thriller, Mystery | 2019, UK | Cert: 15 | 101 Films | Digital HD | 9 November 2020 (UK) | Dir. Catherine Lindstrum | George MacKay, Emilia Jones, Sienna Guillory, Oliver Coopersmith.