This challenging feature debut from director Aneil Karia, starring a disturbingly intense Ben Whishaw, will have you gripped and squirming in your seat.
The camera is static only twice (as far as I can make out) during director Aneil Karia’s first feature Surge. The second time is the closing shot, which is not to be disclosed here. The first is the opening, a high view over Stansted Airport’s departure lounges, where passengers scurry backwards and forwards between their departure gates, trailing luggage in their wake and excited to be getting away.
A tiny figure appears in one corner of the screen and walks, head down, through the crowds, gradually becoming larger in our view as the camera catches up with him. Once it does, it matches his pace and from then on, never leaves his side.
Joseph (Ben Whishaw) is about to start his working day checking passengers and their luggage through the x-ray machines at the airport. During his break he sits apart from his co-workers, picking at a salad while they tuck in to someone’s birthday cake. His only interactions are repetitive instructions to the strangers he has to search as part of his job. The audience will be starting to wonder why Joseph seems different, why he doesn’t engage beyond the absolutely necessary.
A visit to his parents in the suburbs gives the tiniest hint, but nothing specific. Dad (Ian Gelder) is short-tempered and passively aggressive; Mum (Ellie Haddington) is browbeaten and demoralised. The home is devoid of music, of colour, of affection.
The visit becomes a turning point for Joseph, as he reacts to the oppressive atmosphere with a sharp, shocking deed which is the beginning of a wild and reckless 24 hours in which he moves and acts in response to his basic impulses, with total disregard for the ‘rules’ of society which most of us choose to abide by. It’s a challenging journey to watch – both emotionally and physically.
Karia and his Director of Photography Stuart Bentley use hand-held camera throughout and basically follow Whishaw as he walks – and runs – up and down London streets, into and out of shops, banks, hotels. The camera is constantly on Joesph’s face or back of his head, struggling to keep up with him on occasion. Shooting on location, the interactions with shopkeepers or pedestrians feel completely genuine and improvised. On the street, everything in the background is blurred; the focus is Joseph. And as we begin to anticipate what Joseph is going to do next, the effect is extremely unsettling and exhausting.
Special mention must also be made of the sound design, led by Paul Davies. The sense of something ‘not being quite right’ grows very gradually and it was not until the film was nearly over that this viewer was able to identify the subtly creeping soundscape as the reason. Once Joseph is in full flight the sounds around him have become a real sensory assault, in direct contrast to the stultifying silence of his parents’ house. (Incidentally, Karia, Bentley, and Davies also worked together last year on a short with Riz Ahmed – do yourself a favour and check out The Long Goodbye if you haven’t already.)
Ben Whishaw is hypnotic; he is a bundle of raw, dangerous energy and he will have you squirming and riveted at the same time. It’s a striking physical performance and is indicative of the man’s huge talent.
Although very different stories, Surge does have moments which are reminiscent of Xavier Dolan’s 2014 film Mommy – a story which also focuses on a character who operates in society with different rules, and who finds moments of exhilaration before being forced to return to his own reality once more – and both films share that sense of creeping anxiety which also keeps the viewer gripped.
Surge is a powerful film with an extraordinary central performance, and is surely only the beginning of great things from Aneil Karia.