By Betsy Sherman
Ben Whishaw crackles aplenty in Aniel Karia’s fresh and primal debut feature.
Surge, directed by Aniel Karia. Streaming on Amazon Prime.
Watching Ben Whishaw’s performance in the new British release Surge sent me to my bookshelf to flip through my copy of Rae Beth Gordon’s Why the French Love Jerry Lewis.
No, Surge isn’t strictly a comedy, but Whishaw’s face and physique exhibit the same kind of convulsive physical release Gordon describes as being thrilling to French audiences of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: “Corporeal anomalies, along with automatic, repeated gestures, tics, grimaces, and contractures, characterize the pathologized body at the center of performance style in cabaret and early film comedy.” Yep, that pretty much nails it.
Whishaw took on the challenge of this physically and emotionally taxing role after 20-plus years on stage, in films and on television. The thin, pale, dark-haired actor was seen last year as the creepy Uriah Heep in The Personal History of David Copperfield. His credits include the mini-series A Very English Scandal, Brideshead Revisited, Cloud Atlas and Bright Star (playing John Keats). Franchise-wise, he’s Q in the James Bond movies and—awwww—the voice of Paddington Bear.
Surge, the impressive debut feature of Aniel Karia, feels both fresh and primal. Director Karia (who co-wrote the screenplay with Rita Kalnejais and Rupert Jones) deploys Whishaw in what is less a character study than the study of a suddenly dynamic force within a body, as suggested by the film’s title. Without much exposition or revelatory dialogue, Surge makes the audience infer, and viscerally feel, the transformation of its protagonist. At the same time, the film is the study of a habitat, contemporary London, and the ways in which order is imposed there.
Fittingly, the movie starts with an instance of surveillance. From a high-angle view inside London Stansted Airport, our attention is narrowed to one unassuming figure, Joseph (Whishaw). He’s walking to his job as what we’d call a TSA agent.
If airports used to be a place where dreams of adventure were coming true, well, now they’re places of shared trauma. That’s evident on this particular workday for Joseph. The agent passes a metal detector over the body of a grizzled old Eastern European man who doesn’t understand much English. Something on or in the man sets off the device, and he has to be brought to a room to be searched. It’s apparent this man has been through some shit, possibly torture, and he’s triggered into a panic by the search.
Joseph is a bit rattled, but it’s what happens next that pushes him towards the edge. A scruffy man greets him, with the suggestion that they’ve shared an experience. Joseph doesn’t, or pretends not to, know the man. The man causes a scene, beckoning Joseph to go with him, and has to be taken away.
The milieu shifts to the suburbs, and the tone to the comedy of domestic discomfort: Joseph has a painfully awkward dinner with his parents. Dad will never admit he doesn’t have everything under control and blames everyone else when something goes wrong. Mum is a nervous wreck. Joseph’s youth must have revolved around not provoking his father to anger or his mother to tears. He bites down on the glass he’s drinking from. Blood. Pandemonium.
Obsessing on the wound inside his mouth, Joseph begins to lose his inhibitions. He makes faces and noises on the tube train. Previously an introvert at work, he calls attention to himself with bizarre behavior.
Joseph visits a pretty co-worker, Lily (Jasmine Jobson), and goes out to do an errand for her. The well-meaning jaunt turns into a spontaneous crime spree, setting off an adrenalin rush in Joseph that seems to make him feel he’s omnipotent.
Intentional or not, a stand-out scene in which Joseph dismantles a hotel room serves as an homage to the history of film comedy. Chaplin, Keaton, Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey come to mind in the bit where he slices open a mattress and climbs inside it. But he doesn’t linger long; his body is propelled forward.
Are we witnessing a hallucination, or a dream? Certain pleasures are coming awfully easily to Joseph. He gets his dream girl, and at one point even a dream mother figure, who appears after he has a motorcycle accident from which he rebounds like an indestructible cartoon character.
London being the most surveilled city outside of China, it’s certain that Joseph’s every transgression has been observed. Not that Surge only focuses on the dark side of city life. Over the story’s few sunny summer days, London is shown to be made up of a vibrant multiplicity of cultures. A group of South Asian female dancers set the scene for a transcendent ending, and the music they dance to carries over into the end credits.
The story is told not only through body language but also with a choreography of camera movements and editing choices that bind the viewer to Whishaw’s Joseph. There’s layered sound design, and carefully rationed music by Tujiko Noriko that heightens the tension.
While it’s Whishaw who crackles from the screen, praise is due the actors who play the parents. Ian Gelder is a marvelous, flinty crank. Ellie Haddington — familiar in Britain from TV shows such Coronation Street — is a new face to me, and what a face! She portrays Joseph’s mother as a woman so nakedly sensitive that her skin has a flayed quality. Once events have escalated, she too has a surge of courage and speaks up for her son and herself. It’s a touching, brilliant moment.
Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for the Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, and Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.