Surge is one of those films that make a nonsense of star ratings. It’s undeniably brilliantly conceived, played and made but whether you actually want to watch it is another matter. Compelling and entertaining are not the same thing.
The IMDb charmingly calls it a “thriller about a man who goes on a bold and reckless journey of self-liberation”. I’d call it an almost clinical overview of a man going into, and eventually being swamped by, psychosis. Joseph, played by Ben Whishaw, starts out OK enough, if a bit twitchy. He’s one of the security guys at London Stansted Airport who frisk you as you go through from landside to airside. It’s a job that requires you to be in other people’s personal space, and they in yours, all day long. You can imagine this might be a bit enervating and for a while director Aneil Karia’s choices of camera (up very close) and sound (foreground and background undifferentiated) seem to be a reflection of the tension that a job like that might cause.
As to what’s really going on, the screenplay gives us scant clues. There are no handy “friends” pulling exposition out of Joseph, no visits to the shrink, no casually glimpsed anti-psychotics in a medicine cabinet, little that fills us in on his back story. Instead, as Joseph gets worse and worse, Surge works like a search for shreds of evidence in the faces of people Joseph knows. His blokey work colleagues, or Lily (Jasmine Jobson) the co-worker he fancies, or his parents.
And Joseph’s face too. It’s a hell of thing Whishaw’s doing here, a Taxi Driver level of big acting lent extra menace by Whishaw’s gaunt looks (he’s always slender but is here almost emaciated) and tics, grimaces, head jerks and spasms suggesting a man in the increasing grip of something he can’t control. If you think of Whishaw as the nerdy Q in the Bond movies, or as the voice of Paddington Bear, forget it. This is more the one you get in Perfume or in A Very English Scandal. Haunted.
Look at the User Reviews on the IMDb and people go one of two ways. They love or hate this film. The camera gets a particular bashing from the haters. And they have a point. It does swing around with a lunatic intensity. When Joseph legs it down the road after having held up a bank (that’s the kind of “bold and reckless journey” he’s on), the camera goes after him, swinging left and right, all attempts to hold it on him deliberately abandoned. Even when Joseph is walking along the road normally – his is the sort of loose, loping walk that city dwellers know signals trouble – DP Stuart Bentley is now behind him, now in front, now to one side, with almost everything out of focus except for Joseph’s face.
If expressionist painters use stark colour and jagged angles to make their statement, this is the cinematic equivalent, with Tujiko Noriko’s jangling, humming, fizzing score complementing Paul Davies’s disorienting sound design to conjure up an external representation of Joseph’s mental turmoil.
No one at any point says “he’s having a psychotic episode”. But psychosis causes a surge in emotions, this much we know, so the title is a hint. And there’s something about the way Joseph’s parents react to him that’s as big a steer as this film is going to give us. As Mum and Dad, both Ellie Haddington and Ian Gelder, in limited screentime, manage to convey disappointment, despair, exhaustion and possibly a bit of fear as they face a son they’ve clearly infantilised his entire life, possibly with good reason. Perhaps they’re also partly to blame for the way he is. Guilt is in there too. Both fabulous performances. And while I’m about it, Jasmine Jobson, barely in it really, is also excellent in the film’s most bizarre and original scenes, ones that almost spin an entire parallel life story for Joseph, one in which he’s happy and well.
This is the sort of film it’s worth watching at home, so you can pause it and get up and walk around for a minute now and again until the queasiness subsides. It’s a nerve-jangling experience, and the fact that there’s also so much casual anger, abuse and violence on the London streets where Joseph’s “journey” (away from consensual reality) is taking place only adds to the feeling of dread and foreboding.
Surge. The grip and immersive quality of a first-person game, with the storytelling arcs and performances of a fine film. Not bad for a feature debut. Take a bow, Aneil Karia.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021