'Surge': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Protagonist Pictures
Electric but also numbing.

Ben Whishaw stars as a disturbed young man on a crime spree through London in television director Aneil Karia's feature film debut.

Playing a security worker (like a TSA agent) at London's Stansted Airport whose simmering mental unease finally comes to a rolling boil one day, Ben Whishaw contributes a scalding performance in Surge.

This feature debut for director Aneil Karia, who has directed episodes of edgier TV shows such as Top Boy and Pure in the U.K., grew out of an earlier collaboration between Karia, Whishaw and movement coach Laura Williamson Biggson, the short film Beat. In that, Whishaw dances spasmodically through the streets of North London, provoking people into beating him up. There's a little more commitment to storytelling here in Rupert Jones and Rita Kalnejais' screenplay, but only just. Too often, Surge plays like an attenuated short. Even though Whishaw is mesmeric, by the end of the 105-minute running time the whole experience starts to feel like being trapped in a broken-down subway car with a violent mental patient.

At work, Whishaw's Joseph keeps his head down and goes through the motions of patting down travelers who've set off the metal detector alarm and asking people to empty their pockets into the trays over and over again. He seems to have no friends among his co-workers, to the extent that when he brings in a cake to share in the break room for his own birthday, no one even knows it was him. His at first almost imperceptible twitches, troubled expressions and compulsive worrying at his teeth as if bothered by an abscess suggest all is not well.

Some viewers might wonder if these "stimming" behaviors are signs of autism, Tourette's syndrome or some form of schizophrenia, but no diagnosis is ever offered. But judging by the seething resentment and barely repressed rage that emanate from his parents (Ellie Haddington, Ian Gelder) when Joseph comes to visit for a birthday lunch, we can surmise he's been in trouble before. The pressure builds by unbearable millimeters in this scene until Joseph can't stop himself from biting through a drinking glass. His mother's most immediate reaction is to get angry about the mess.

After this point, both protagonist and film just keep unscrewing the bolts on the insanity gas. Joseph's increasingly manic mood leads him into a spree of bad behavior and crime that's so comically bizarre it's almost believable. At another point, he goes to visit Lily (Jasmine Jobson), a pretty colleague from work whom he'd overheard the other day complaining about setting up her new TV. Realizing he hasn't got the right HDMI cable on hand, he nips downstairs to the hardware store, and finding his card doesn't work, leaves to go rob a bank. That works, and so he returns to Lily's, fixes her TV and is rewarded with a standing quickie in the kitchen.

The film pretty much continues in this vein, with picaresque incident after incident, until it basically just stops abruptly, having revealed precious little about Joseph except that he's one very unhappy little bunny. But Whishaw's physicality here, sometimes almost balletically graceful and sometimes thrashing about like a dog with a terminal case of fleas, tells its own story. The camera dances around him in long unbroken takes, taking in the baffled expressions of passersby and those who haven't noticed and couldn't give a damn alike. The city is practically a character in its own right, and not a very nice one.

Tujiko Noriko's scratchy, atonal score works in coordination with Paul Davies' sound design to create a wall of noise that's almost visible and as disturbing as the visual material itself.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic competition) 
Production: A Rooks Nest, BBC Films, BFI production 
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Jasmine Jobson, Ellie Haddington, Ian Gelder, Laurence Spellman, Ryan McKen, Muna Otaru, Bradley Taylor, Ranjit Singh Shubh, Chris Coghill, Clare Joseph
Director: Aneil Karia
Screenwriters: Aneil Karia, Rupert Jones, Rita Kalnejais
Producers: Julia Godzinskaya, Sophie Vickers
Executive producers: Rose Garnett, Eva Yates, Lizzie Francke, Will Norton, Dave Bishop, Isabelle Stewart
Director of photography: Stuart Bentley
Production designer: Alexandra Toomey
Costume designer: Charlotte Morris
Editor: Amanda James
Composer: Tujiko Noriko
Music supervisor: Bridget Samuels
Sound designer: Paul Davies
Movement coach: Laura Williamson Biggs
Casting: Lara Manwaring
Sales: Protagonist

No rating, 105 minutes