mon 20/09/2021

Surge review - jittery and joyless | reviews, news & interviews

Surge review - jittery and joyless

Surge review - jittery and joyless

Ben Whishaw compels in largely wordless study in mental collapse

On the skids: Ben Whishaw in 'Surge'

Seventeen years after Ben Whishaw shot to attention playing Hamlet, this terrific actor is again playing someone "mad-north-northwest".

Marking TV director Aneil Karia's feature film debut, Surge casts Whishaw as a jittery wreck called Joseph, whose psychic decline is tracked across 100 largely wordless minutes that nonetheless communicate a mounting dread. Possessed of a manic laugh that puts one in mind of Joaquin Phoenix's Joker, Joseph exists at sorrowful odds with himself, and Whishaw pulls you toward the demons of a man from whom you'd distance yourself in real life. 

When first seen, Joseph is just about getting through the demands of his job as a security official at Stansted Airport, a joyless routine that won't be long for this world, as we soon discover. Disinclined to observe the protocol of his position, Joseph is before long released on to the mean, sweary streets of London and to a homelife marked out by a sad-eyed but eternally loving mother (Ellie Haddington, in superb form) and a gruffer, less empathic father (Ian Gelder), who is shown early on engaged in an altercation-prone universe of his own.

Ben Whishaw as Joseph in 'Surge'It's during a birthday meal provided by his parents in his honour that Joseph happens to chew a drinking glass, an aberrant act that prompts concern from mum about getting blood on the carpet. And with that, this haunted fellow is back out in what can scarcely be termed society, seeking brief sexual solace from a dozy-seeming work colleague (Jasmine Jobson) and getting lippy with a determinedly antisocial neighbour whose ever-noisy motorbike Joseph one evening commandeers for a joy ride all his own. 

Quite why Joseph has descended to this tic-laden state isn't explored by a script, co-authored by Karia, that asks the viewer merely to invest in the character as is and let his unpredictable journey take its course. To that end, the film couldn't ask for a better actor than Whishaw to animate every dangerously wired corner of Joseph's fevered brain, whether that means crashing a wedding reception (a great scene, however implausible) or embarking upon an unexpectedly successful spree as a bank robber - equally improbable but no less arresting. (I love the moment when Joseph returns some of the loot he is given, having by that point had more cash than he could ever have anticipated: the lucky teller is also handed a banana for his efforts.) 

The film doesn't allow itself a climactic catharsis or, indeed, anything resembling a conventional resolution. Instead, Karia and his sterling cameraman, Stuart Bentley, find a grimly compelling poetry to Joseph's malaise, very memorably so in a scene in a posh hotel room where he starts shredding more or less everything in sight. (He uses the in-room safe to pulverise his phone.) You're aware of a kindness to Joseph, however submerged, in the sympathy he shows distressed airport travellers who are doing battle with an officious system, and the bond he shares with a mum who continues to love him regardless is powerfully realised with minimal fuss.

Eyes darting every which way, Whishaw never allows the twitchy neuroticism to grow tiresome and even finds when least expected momentary flashes of grace. Will Joseph for his part find peace? Who's to say, though the final image does suggest an arrival somewhere beatific in his head. As for where life will lead him going forward, well, as no one knew better than Hamlet, on that front the rest is silence. 

The film couldn't ask for a better actor than Whishaw to animate every dangerously wired corner of Joseph's fevered brain

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters