Surge review – Ben Whishaw pounds the streets in gripping psychodrama | Sundance 2020

After some much-admired short films, including the excellent Bafta-nominated Work, British film-maker Aneil Karia now makes a vehement, if flawed feature debut at the Sundance film festival. It’s a fierce, claustrophobic and atmospheric character study with a big pressure-cooker performance from Ben Whishaw playing Joseph, a young airport security officer who succumbs to a breakdown due to loneliness, insomnia and unresolved feelings for his co-worker Lily (Jasmine Jobson). Joseph loses it big time at work, walks off the job and, with his brain almost audibly pulsing with suppressed craziness, strides through the clamorous, uncaring London streets on an odyssey of chaos and confrontation. This involves many surreally disturbing scenes with total strangers – but also with Lily and his equally unhappy mum and dad (Ellie Haddington and Ian Gelder), encounters that involve unexpected moments of tenderness.

The movie’s title is well chosen. Almost each individual scene – and arguably the film itself – is a surge, an oppressive swelling of the meteorological pressure in Joseph’s head. Each sequence seems to be building, building, building to something, but then, instead of a climax, we enigmatically cut to another scene later and reset for another psycho-emotional surge. It’s a shrewd depiction of the banal day-to-day unhappiness that Joseph lives with. Each body search that Joseph has to do at the security gates involves an unbearable official intimacy with a total stranger, one of whom is clearly disturbed; and, for an awful moment here, Joseph’s own palpable instability is such that the audience can’t be sure which is mad and which is sane.

Violence or some sort of outbreak is clearly unavoidable, yet when the violence comes it seems almost indistinguishable in dramatic terms from the tense brooding prelude. Whishaw’s performance is mostly a wordless anthology of flinches, tics, grimaces, periods of unsettling blankness, together with a bit of Henry-Portrait-of-a-Serial-Killer looking in the mirror. It would not have worked with an actor any less accomplished and charismatic than Whishaw. He certainly sells it hard.

This is an intriguing essay in mood, but I felt that the feature-film length of Surge tests the material. Perhaps it would have worked better as a short film, based around the great opening scenes at the airport, with Joseph in his heartbreakingly drab uniform with the V-neck jumper and ID on a lanyard. There are times when Surge feels directionless: in his despair and near-madness – and desperate for five quid so he can buy an HDMI cable to fix Lily’s TV – Joseph turns to a life of crime, doing no fewer than three bank stick-ups without ever having to deal with a police officer. Wouldn’t the police be a bit more on the ball with something like this? Maybe not.

Weirdly, these crimes themselves feel like part of the weightless, consequence-free bad dream that is Joseph’s lawless existence. Karia never loses control of the mood, but the mood itself seems almost unchanging. There are some extraordinary images, particularly one in which Joseph, in his delirium, gets a room in a posh hotel, and then rips open the mattress and climbs inside this quasi-womb. Karia is a smart film-maker and this is a valuable beginning.

Source: The Guardian

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