GFF REVIEW: ‘Surge’ (2021) is an Uncomfortable But Liberating Experience

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“Triggers your fight-or-flight response from the start, and then forces you to stew in it until the credits roll”

Joseph (Ben Whishaw) works in airport security. Every day, he puts on his tie, beckons passengers through the scanners, and goes home to sit in front of the telly with a microwave meal for one. Whether at work or striding through the streets of London, he is swallowed up by crowds – a single face smothered by the restraints of civility, barely keeping a lid on his more primal desires. Surge is a 105-minute rollercoaster ride depicting what happens when the lid blows off, as Joseph embarks on an adrenaline-fuelled episode of mania and liberation. 

Sometimes the catharsis of a film comes not from plot or character, but from the sheer experience of having watched it. Like the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, Surge triggers your fight-or-flight response from the start, and then forces you to stew in it until the credits roll. Directed by Aneil Karia, the camerawork is claustrophobic and subjective, barely leaving Joseph’s face or the back of his neck for a second. The handheld style and almost imperceptible cuts give the sense of long, endless takes, often feeling as though the events are unfurling in real time. The camera rocks violently as it runs with Joseph down the street, adding to the queasy desperation of the character it’s tracking. 

Whishaw is holding nothing back, committing wholeheartedly to Joseph’s outbursts as well as pulling off the cowed physicality of his more sedate moments. He convincingly transitions from the reserved, polite manner of someone who blends into the background, to the erratic unpredictability of the guy you don’t want to be stood next to on the train, limbs let loose across the screen in a role unlike any of his previous work. Joseph is the only substantially developed character, but Ellie Haddington and Ian Gelder are chilling as his equally odd and repressed parents, and Jasmine Jobson is also strong in her few scenes as his coworker Lily. 

It’s never specified in Surge whether Joseph has a disorder or mental illness contributing to his breakdown, or if he’s simply been pushed over the edge by the endless mundanity of his life. This lack of clarity means some elements of his behaviour veer into the uncomfortable; he seems to emulate physical tics symptomatic of Tourette’s syndrome, and his lack of social skills could imply something like autism or a personality disorder. These traits aren’t disturbing in and of themselves, but the way they’re presented in Joseph can feel like making a mockery or spectacle of mental illness, rather than exploring how one man lets his violent urges run riot. Take it as the latter, and Surge is an inspired, totally immersive piece of cinema – but interpret it as the former, and it could leave a distinctly sour taste in the mouth.

Director: Aneil Karia

Cast: Ben Whishaw, Ellie Haddington, Ian Gelder, Jasmine Jobson

Producers: Sophie Vickers, Julie Godzinskaya

Header image courtesy of Vertigo Releasing / Glasgow Film Festival