British actor Ben Whishaw has amassed an impressive filmography over his 20 years or so as a regularly working actor. From independent period dramas like Jane Campion’s sultry, romantic Bright Star to voicing the warm and kind Paddington Bear in those wholesome films to taking up the iconic role of Q in the Daniel Craig-era Bond films, Whishaw seems endlessly able to create watchable, compelling characters across genres, settings and styles. It’s this very magnetism that carries us through Aneil Karia’s feature directorial debut, Surge, a frenetic and often frustrating drama about a man finally pushed over the edge into a manic episode that might just cost him everything. As Joseph, Whishaw is at the center of nearly every moment of the film, a man who goes from beaten-down to psychotic break in the span of 24 hours, neither of which is terribly easy to witness.
Joseph leads a fairly quiet life, spending his days working as an airport security agent and his evenings warming microwave meals for one to eat while he watches TV alone in his flat. At the airport security line, his unassuming manner serves him well as passengers shuffle through the bag check and x-ray machines; he’s soft-spoken and non-threatening, meaning even the foreigners who don’t speak much English find themselves able to follow his cues and get through the process without too much hassle. In the breakroom one afternoon, Joseph overhears a coworker lament that she can’t get her laptop connected to her television to stream videos for her son; the whole team is enjoying a brief moment off over a birthday cake, though even Joseph doesn’t respond when someone asks who they’re celebrating. We don’t learn until later that it’s his special day, and then it’s only because he’s gone home to visit his parents, a closed-off, distant father (Laurence Spellman) and a downtrodden, ever-the-victim mother (Ellie Haddington). When he walks into the kitchen as she’s trying to surprise him with another cake and candles, the way her disappointment crushes the energy in the entire room is cringeworthy; Joseph clearly inhabits a world in which he can do absolutely no right, and neither of his parents are shy about telling him so.
The film’s first act is nearly unbearable in its discomfort, the way we’re forced to watch Joseph take hit after hit in life, and the way Whishaw bears it all makes it that much more visceral. But even we can see that the tide is turning on Joseph’s day and he’s likely going to hit a breaking point from which he won’t be coming back. It all comes to a head when he tries to pay for a cord that his coworker Lily (Jasmine Jobson) needs to get her laptop and television connected. He’s intent on making it happen for her, and feeling himself with absolutely no other options to get the cash he needs, he scribbles out a quick note at the bank and robs the joint. The rush he gets from being flush with funds and getting away with it sets Joseph off on a manic episode that will last the rest of his whirlwind day. From a frantic quickie with Lily after fixing her television to stealing a motorbike on his rush to evade the authorities and more, Joseph is a tornado of bad decisions and mental instability, and if Whishaw weren’t so incredibly captivating through it all, it would be almost too much to bear.
Written by Karia (with the help of Rita Kalnejais and Rupert Jones) and filmed by cinematographer Stuart Bentley, Surge is a thrilling first-person rush, one that takes us head-first into the chaotic state of mind of someone who’s finally reached their breaking point. In all its intense energy, there’s an underlying sense of dread knowing that this man isn’t getting the help he needs to get better. But it’s nearly impossible to look away from Joseph’s descent into madness, into finally giving it all up, even as we’re hoping beyond hope that he comes out whole on the other side of it.
Surge is now streaming on virtual cinemas, including at Music Box Theatre.
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