Film review by Jason Day and Helen Blaby of Surge, the thriller about a man with mental health issues who embarks on a reckless mission of self-discovery. Starring Ben Wishaw and directed by Aneil Karia.
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Joseph (Ben Wishaw) lives alone and works a thankless and repetitive job as an airport security officer. After a difficult meeting with his parents, his temper and faculties snap and he prowls the streets. He robs a bank and a betting shop, destroys a plush hotel room and becomes increasingly disconnected from reality.
Review by @Reelreviewer and @blabers
There’s a scene in Surge that encapsulates the bland and humourless cruelty of society, an uncaring world that can tip anyone into madness…Joseph (Ben Wishaw) watches Michael McIntyre on the TV.
It’s stressful enough watching a snippet of this terminally unfunny man, but for Joseph this is part and parcel of the daily grind of a forgotten fella. No wonder he’s living on the edge.
Stress is a good word to describe how Helen Blaby (a good pal and fellow cineaste, who watched this film with me) and I felt when watching Surge.
In that regard it is a bit like the similarly themed Joker (2019) although Surge is less exploitative, less ‘video nasty’ masquerading as social commentary. Also like Joker I am glad I saw this film, but probably won’t again. It’s left an impression and once is enough.
Still, it got me thinking about mental health. Surge is a difficult film to watch, let alone discuss and dissect afterwards. Some people might argue that the Joseph character is not mentally ill but someone who has had enough of being nice and whose ‘mental split’ is actually an opportunity for a button-tight man to loosen up and have fun. Kind of like a 21st century Dr Jekyll, but without recourse to frothing potions to unleash the Hyde within.
He does go a bit rock and roll but, with Wishaw’s amazing physicality and my own personal observations, there’s definitely something else going on.
How many people out there are like Joseph? People who ‘keep on keeping on’, just about keeping it together even though under the surface they are ready to pop. The signs are there from the beginning with our man and I know because I have seen ‘Joseph’.
I lived for the better part of a decade in London and Joseph is two a penny, exhibiting alarming and frightening behaviour. The wild-eyed look, hyena smile, hands flailing in the air, impromptu dancing, the muttering and swearing. Wishaw’s nails all of this.
Joseph is quiet and reserved when we first see him, completing his repetitive job functions. He eats his lunch and walks around with his head permanently down avoiding eye contact with the world. It’s a wonder he doesn’t walk into people or lampposts; he must have a sixth sense. A colleague calls him Jason telling us how valued he is.
We get an insight into why Joseph operates at a level when his psyche is about to explode during a painful, emotion-devoid birthday ‘party’ with his Mum and Dad. A mangey dog would have a better welcome.
Joseph’s presence elicits huge effort and resentment from the outset. His Dad (Ian Gelder, Game of Thrones) has ordered a washing machine that arrives on the big day. Cue much awkwardness as the old man refuses help, visibly angered whenever his son tries to support and fuming when he isn’t in front of him seconds after ordering the lad away to do something else. Mum frets and fumbles o the sidelines, twitching with nerves but offering no support for her son or criticism of her husband. Mum inhabits a no-man’s land in her own kitchen. This isn’t the first ‘battle’ she has observed.
Mum (excellent Ellie Haddington) eventually comes through. A mother’s love however deep it is buried is still there and surges to the surface during crisis.
Joseph returns home after his bank robbing, hotel trashing street frenzy, injured after a hit and run (the other driver beats him up for the inconvenience caused to him).
She sleeps on the bed with him and weeps. The next day she scowls at her husband for his lack of compassion, years of neglecting her son because of his father’s emotional incontinence finally ripped away. Dad leaves and she and Joseph embrace and the moment has real intimacy. Their bear hug makes the bones in her back make a loud crack and they laugh as Dad phones the police to have him arrested for his crimes.
Love at long last is expressed; it might be the last time they do this away from the eyes of the criminal justice system.
Full respect to actor Ben Wishaw who puts in an eerily accurate, flesh, blood, nerves and sinew believability to his performance. Wishaw is a cool physical actor who moves seamlessly from looking gorgeous as a fey Richard II in TV’s The Hollow Crown, to the cute geek of Q in the latest glut of Bond flicks and here as a lanky husk of a human.
Surge is co-writer Aneil Karia’s debut as a feature film director and it’s an astonishing, confident piece. Part of the reason Helen and I both felt body-slammed by it is because of the closeness and tightness of his filming style. Wishaw and the other actors are mostly seen in medium or full close up and that approach rarely lets up; right from the start, you are in Joseph’s head.
When Joseph goes on his rampage the foreground and background are blurred. Karia places us in Joseph’s confused, mind. As he totters and spins and wheezes, so do we. But not matter how skillful Karia’s directing and visuals are there are some preposterous things about this movie.
We are in the capital of England but banks and betting shops, carrying hundreds of thousands of pounds in cash, have the slackest security systems.
Joseph’s hook-up with colleague Lily (Jasmine Jobson) doesn’t convince. She’s a single Mum, has a rancid cold and no close connection or appreciation for a man who appears randomly at her front door – clearly out of it for some reason or another – and lets him in to fix her TV? Then serves him ‘rola cola’ and gives him a quick bunk up?
Thank God Michael McIntyre wasn’t on!
Helen gave Surge 3/5 stars. It had a palpable, visceral impact on her:
Surge is the kind of film that should be made. We should know more about how mental health can affect people. That being said, I’m not sure any themes were covered in any great depth. Perhaps a little bit too much style over substance.
I have never had a physical reaction to a film before like I did with this one. Whether it was through the intensity displayed through some sublime acting Ben Wishaw or the hand-held camera I don’t know, but I thought I was going to throw up. That was then followed by a hot flush to end all hot flushes. A good film, not a great film.
Cast & credits
Director: Aneil Karia. 1hr 45mins/105mins. BBC Films/British Film Institute (BFI)/Rooks Nest Entertainment. (15).
Producers: Julia Godzinskaya, Sophie Vickers.
Writers: Rupert Jones, Rita Kalnejais, Aneil Karia.
Camera: Stuart Bentley.
Music: Tujiko Noriko.
Sets: Alexandra Toomey.
Ben Wishaw, Ellie Haddington, Hammed Animashaun, Ian Gelder, Jasmine Jobson, Laurence Spellman, Chris Coghill.