by Anton Bitel
Aneil Karia’s feature debut Surge opens with a high-angle wide shot of travellers and staff moving through the interior of Heathrow Airport, with the camera ever so slowly zooming in, as though looking for meaning in the chaos. At first a man in a red tie momentarily occupies the centre of the screen, and it seems that he will be the film’s focus – but then he ambles off, and the camera instead picks out and begins tracking a different man, hangdog and anonymous. Not that this man lacks a name, but for now he is just one of many, a face in the crowd – and Karia’s almost arbitrary way of picking out Joseph (Ben Whishaw, who also starred in Karia’s short Beat, 2013) leaves the impression that his story could be anyone’s, on just another day in busy, bustling London. Joseph works at Heathrow, frisking and searching strangers at baggage control. He commutes by train to his apartment, where a neighbour keeps him awake endlessly repairing and revving a quad bike by the building’s entrance. Withdrawn and taciturn, Joseph brings in a cake on his birthday for his colleagues to share, but stays silent as they wonder aloud whose anniversary they are celebrating. He admires from afar his co-worker Lily (Jasmine Jobson), but never talks to her. Occasionally he visits his disapproving father (Ian Gelder) and awkwardly loving mother (Ellie Haddington) in their home, where relations are painfully frosty.
A grave, unsmiling loner, Joseph may be unhappy, but he also, in his disconnected disgruntlement, seems a far from atypical Londoner. The only thing noticeably odd about him – not that anybody notices him at all – is a habit of biting objects when he is feeling anxious. When, at a tense dinner with his parents, he bites a drinking glass too hard, breaking it and drawing blood, something in Joseph switches and cracks. From here on, Surge follows Joseph intimately, clinging close to him in long, reeling handheld tracking shots that never flinch from his long day and night of slow-motion, self-destructive descent. Now manic and impulsive, Joseph becomes the centre and star of his newly assertive narrative, even if his increasingly antisocial actions – making loud noises, spitting, touching, robbing, vandalising, fighting, as well as exhibiting a range of convulsive, compulsive tics – make little sense beyond expressing pent-up frustrations and resentments at a selfish, hostile world. This courteous, contained man rediscovers his inner child (and loses his inner censor), casting aside the rules and conventions of adult conduct. His id-driven journey is at first harmless (albeit strange and estranging), but quickly becomes dangerous for both Joseph and others, and will eventually, inevitably lead to consequences even more serious than the cuts, bruises and scars which he accumulates along the way. Still, if at work Joseph normally stays put while facilitating other people’s travel, Surge fleetingly allows him too to take flight – even if we know that what goes up must come crashing down.
“It’s you!” says an eccentric stranger whom Joseph searches at the airport. When Joseph denies knowing him, the stranger insists, adding, “It’ll be over soon… It’s alright, it’s beautiful…. I’m gonna go now, and you follow me in 63 seconds.” It is an unsettling sequence, not just because of this man’s aberrant behaviour (which soon has him tackled by security guards), but also because he alone seems to see Joseph. It is this moment of recognition that perhaps marks the beginning of Joseph’s own departure from reality, as though Karia is suggesting that, in an intense urban environment, mental illness is contagious. After all, soon afterwards (if not quite in 63 seconds) Joseph will “follow”, acting in a remarkably similar manner to the stranger whom he encountered at his workplace – and when Joseph later chances upon an obviously self-loathing speaker at a wedding party and whispers something into his ear, we can imagine that Joseph is passing on his condition, at least in the metaphorical sense that his experiences today may well be the best man’s experiences tomorrow. Who among us, given the right circumstances and triggers, is not susceptible to mental breakdown? As in the film’s opening scene, Joseph is, we suspect, just one person in the many that make up society, and his story repeats itself (with variations) across any city where people are always in violent collision with each other.
Like Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane (2004), Surge stares hard at its spiralling subject, and refuses to let us look away. Aided by sound design that both captures and distorts all the metropolitan ambience, this is an immersive experience, and a quest for peace amid all the noise. By the end of Joseph’s tragic trajectory, he – and we with him – have reached a moment of transcendent calm that feels almost spiritual, no matter how ironised it may be by context. It is a much-needed grace note for an unbalanced character who, despite all that he has done during his psychotic episode, retains the sympathies of the viewer as his fellow traveller. In this most unforgiving of ages, that hard-won sympathy for mental illness makes Surge a deeply political film, drawing our gaze to what is usually overlooked or dismissed – even as the film also whispers into our ears its recognition of us all.
Surge is playing at the Glasgow Film Festival
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