Both main characters in the based-on-fact Netflix drama “The Good Nurse” are in that profession. The title applies to each. With Jessica Chastain’s Amy, it’s straightforwardly descriptive. She really is a good nurse: steady, forceful, kind. You’d definitely want Amy working on any ward you or a loved one were a patient on. Additionally, she’s required to do something well above and beyond, which makes her a good witness and even, in a sense, a good cop.
“The Good Nurse” starts streaming Oct. 26 and is currently playing at the Dedham Community Theatre.
What forces Amy into those additional roles are the actions of the other nurse, Eddie Redmayne’s Charlie. In one sense, he, too, is a good nurse: tireless, helpful, sympathetic. Or so he seems. In fact, the title applies to him with the grimmest of ironies: Over the course of 16 years, working at nine hospitals, the real-life Charlie Cullen surreptitiously killed patients, perhaps as many as 400. Not even he knows for sure. He’s currently serving 11 consecutive life sentences in New Jersey State Prison.
“The Good Nurse” is the story of how he was apprehended. So it’s not quite a whodunit, since this is a famous case. The culprit matters less than his capture and motivation. Since the real Cullen has never offered an explanation for his actions, the film has the modesty (and good sense) not to attempt do so. Instead, “The Good Nurse” is at its best as a medical police procedural. It helps that Noah Emmerich and Nnamdi Asomugha, playing the cops, give solid, understated performances.
A viewer can believe that Amy would believe in them when they try to enlist her help. She has multiple reasons to say no. She and Charlie have formed a real bond, “like partners,” as she says to him. It’s professional, it’s personal, it’s even parental. They both have two daughters, though it’s only Amy’s we meet. Where’s her highest loyalty: to friendship? to her profession? to her patients?
Even if viewers didn’t already know the outcome, what they’ve seen of Amy provides the answer to that question. Chastain conveys her everyday nobility very well, without ever overdoing it, since she also conveys how beleaguered Amy feels — not just being a single mother but also the impact of an ongoing health issue she’s facing — and how this means she has to struggle with her decision.
Without ever overdoing could be the motto of the film’s director, the Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm. He’s best-known for co-writing, with the director of both, Thomas Vinterberg, “The Hunt” (2012) and “Another Round” (2020). Much of the film is set in intensive-care units, so its being underlit is a function of realism. But it’s also the visual expression of Lindholm’s cool, understated approach. The film has a greenish/bluish/grayish palette. Are the colors keyed to the nurses’s scrubs? To the extent Lindholm goes for expressivity, he relies on sound, which he uses very well.
Inevitably, perhaps, things get a bit much at the end. Considering the facts of the story, how could they not? There’s a scene in which Charlie gets to Emote (yes, with a capital E), and it almost — almost — pulls the rug out from under the very impressively calibrated performance that has preceded it. It’s a tribute to Redmayne that it doesn’t. That amiable rabbitiness of his creates a growing tension with viewers’ sense of the sinister in Charlie. The character’s slight gawkiness and bad haircut give him a certain appeal. But Newt Scamander or Stephen Hawking he most definitely is not.
There’s another thematic element to the story worth noting: institutional cover-up. The hospital where Amy and Charlie works is extremely — maybe even criminally? — reluctant to reveal information to police or public. You don’t have to be a Boston Globe movie reviewer to see a pronounced “Spotlight” aspect here. Kim Dickens has the thankless task of playing the hospital’s “risk officer.” Her job description would seem to be stonewalling and buck-passing. Sadly, none of this in any way rings false, but it does detract from the heart of the movie, Chastain’s and, especially, Redmayne’s performances.
If “The Good Nurse” leaves you wanting still more Charles Cullen in your viewing life, be aware that there’s a documentary coming next month, also on Netflix: “Capturing the Killer Nurse.” It starts streaming Nov. 11.
THE GOOD NURSE
Directed by Tobias Lindholm. Written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns; based on the book by Charles Graeber. Starring Jessica Chastain, Eddie Redmayne. At Dedham Community and streaming on Netflix. 121 minutes. R (language)
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.