Joseph at work

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.

Joseph in a lift
Joseph losing it

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.

Surge – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Karoline Herfurth and Ben Whishaw in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer


Having wandered off up arthouse avenue in recent years, with The Princess and the Warrior and Heaven, director Tom Tykwer delivers his most accessible film since Run Lola Run. It’s an adaptation of Patrick Süskind’s runaway best-seller about an 18th century peasant with an incredible olfactory talent and the trouble that that gets him into. The feted Ben Whishaw gives it plenty of Norman Wisdom/Lee Evans gaucheness in the lead, as the lad whose almost Asperger’s talent for one single thing, and a commensurate lack of social skills, drives him on a giddy flight to the dark side. And the supporting cast is notable, sumptuous even. Dustin Hoffman does an entirely inappropriate panto act as the perfumer who’s lost his spark, until Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Whishaw) comes into his life, while Alan Rickman adds some theatrical bottom as the number one man on Grenouille’s tail, the father of one of his victims. Because where Grenouille’s nose takes him is towards murder, as he tries to produce a scent that can catch the essence of truth, beauty and life itself by killing attractive young women and then macerating them in animal fat – essence de femme morte. If that sounds like a tall order and one doomed to failure, the film has a similar ambition and outcome, aiming to get Susskind’s authorial voice and Grenouille’s first person point of view onto the screen at the same time (John Hurt doing his John Hurt thing in voiceover). Tykwer lavishes a large proportion of his decent budget getting the stink and filth of the 18th century onto the screen, and agonises over his compositions, whether they are of gorgeous women such as Rachel Hurd-Wood or Karoline Herfurth (her vivid red hair alone makes the film worth a look) or seething masses of maggots and other signifiers of decay. But no amount of set-dressing can hide the fact that the book has died on the way to the screen. Ironically the film is simply too literal, and without Süskind’s authorial voice teasing us this way and that, it’s hard to dispel the nagging feeling that what we’re watching is the Tooth Fairy strand from Silence of the Lambs rendered in the style of an upmarket continental lager advertisement. As for the blackly comic turn Tykwer takes at the end, it’s a throws-hands-in-the-air get-out for a film that looks like it had no idea how to end.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer – Watch It at Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2006




I’m Not There

Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

19 March

Bob Dylan releases first album, 1962

Having dropped out of the University of Minnesota and relocated to New York City to visit the dying Woody Guthrie and break into performing, today in 1962 Bob Dylan released his first album. Eponymously titled Bob Dylan it came about after Dylan played harmonica on Carolyn Hester’s album in September 1961 and caught the eye of producer John Hammond.

Hammond signed Dylan to Columbia Records in October 1961 and within five months the album was done. It was a collection of folk standards, coffeehouse favourites plus two Dylan originals – Song to Woody (loosely based on Guthrie’s 1913 Massacre) and Talkin’ New York. The album’s personnel consisted of Dylan on vocals, guitar and harmonica, and that was it. The album failed to sell.

I’m Not There (2007, dir: Todd Haynes)

A film about Bob Dylan that uses a different actor to play the man in various stages of his career. Sounds fairly unremarkable on the face of it, the sort of thing that happens all the time. But Richard Gere as Dylan? An African-American (Marcus Carl Franklin)? A woman (Cate Blanchett)? Director Todd Haynes throws in Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw as the other three Dylans in a film whose stunt casting threatens to obscure its purpose – by adopting the freewheeling approach Haynes is trying to get closer to a character who has spent his life constantly creating and erasing his own myth.

Well that’s the puff. Constructed as a series of episodes, with a different Dylan in each, the look and shooting style changing to match, this kaleidoscopic retelling of the Dylan biography avoids the trap of serving up familiar snippets. And when it does, it refracts them, twisting them into new shapes, much as Dylan himself twisted the fairly staid forms of folk into his own vehicle for expression.
Haynes takes Dylan pretty much at his own estimation of himself – cool, smart, honest, only occasionally a monster, while the famous songs (Idiot Wind, Like a Rolling Stone, The Times They Are A-Changin’ etc) are used as a commentary on the man’s life as he lived it.

Some things really stand out – as if the multiple casting for Dylan wasn’t enough (though Todd Solondz had done something not too dissimilar with his Alice in Wonderland-esque Palindromes in 2004) – one is the way that Haynes presents the 60s as a strange, distant, other world. Which of course it is now – further away culturally than chronologically – but Haynes was among the first to put this observation on film. Another is the way that Haynes and co-writer Oren Moverman draw comparisons between the 1960s and the time of the Old West (usually, with the 1960s, it’s the Edwardians and all that Sgt Pepper militaria).

As for the performances as Dylan, take your pick. Blanchett has been praised, though she’s a touch self-conscious. But then maybe she’s meant to be; she’s playing Dylan at his most iconic – shades, skinny black suit, smart haircut, at just the moment when he became the most famous pop star in the world, an icon in silhouette. A lot of people reading this might not even realise how big he was – bigger and cooler than the Beatles. The film’s a bit about that too.

Why Watch?

  • The stunt casting
  • Play “spot the reference” – was that Jodorowsky?
  • Some great Dylan music
  • Edward Lachman’s remarkably varied cinematography

I’m Not There – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014