Film Review – Surge (2020)

That moment when your card is declined. You’ve swiped, you’ve entered your pin and still it doesn’t want to know. You try an ATM – and it swallows your card. It all happens so quickly and we know that feeling of our blood running cold. For Joseph (Ben Whishaw) in Surge, it’s a tipping point, the moment that he decides to free himself from everything weighing him down. And, for him, it’s a mighty burden.

He’s just another face on the London streets. He works in security at an airport, helping people through the metal detector, searching them when necessary and coming face to face with anybody and everybody. The pressures are many and varied. Away from work, he has no friends, his parents are aging and increasingly difficult and he’s naturally solitary, living alone and hardly socialising at work. What nobody sees is that the pressure is building inside and, when the problem with his card escalates, he goes completely off the rails. Nothing matters and what follows is a 24 hour spree when he breaks every single rule he encounters without a second thought.

Falling Down or Network for 2021? A London-set Joker? There’s similarities, for sure, but this is a film that stands more than happily on its own, and much of that is down to the character of Joseph himself and Whishaw’s phenomenal performance, generating equal measures of tension and sympathy. And it’s the latter that makes the difference. As he goes on his surreal journey, your nerves start to jangle and your fears for him rise: even if, at times, his actions make no sense, you constantly anticipate the worst for him and everybody around him. Somebody is going to get hurt somewhere along the line: who and by whom remains to be seen, but it’s a constant source of stress in this edgy thriller.

The hand held camera is always trained on Whishaw – he’s at the centre of everything – but, although his interactions with others are limited, there are people all around him. He doesn’t pay them much attention and they’re even less aware of him but when they are, their expressions – frequently out of focus and on the sidelines – are suspicious and dismissive. Stuart Bentley’s (behind the camera for last year’s Muscle) photography is a mirror image of Joseph’s state of mind, all frenetic speed and jerky movements, designed to fuel our sense of trepidation. Yet there are times when it calms down and, with little or no soundtrack to go with it in those sequences, the film takes on a documentary feel taking us directly inside Joseph’s life and mind. There is a soundtrack at other stages of the film, one provided by those crowded, anonymous streets and the other based on jarring sound effects from Tujiko Noriko which is so subtle that it sometimes slips under our radar.

It’s not a flattering portrait of people en masse: we’d like to think we’re not as selfish, judgemental and lacking in understanding as most of the people crossing paths with Joseph. We also may not want to admit it, but who hasn’t wished they could chuck it all in and do exactly the same as Joseph – breaking free from anything and everything and doing exactly what you want with no thought for anybody else? But as a thriller, a frenetic 24 hours in the life of one solitary man, it bursts off the screen, demanding your attention. Add to that a performance from Whishaw that plays against his usual benevolent persona, replacing it with pent-up anger and the simmering potential to explode at any and every moment, and you have a searing combination, one that refuses to let go of your memory. Or, indeed, give you a comforting answer to the question you simply can’t shake off. How many other Josephs are there?

★★★★1/2


Drama, Thriller | Cert: 15 | Cinemas and digital | Vertigo Releasing | 28 May 2021 | Dir. Aneil Karia | Ben Whishaw, Jasmine Jobson, Ellie Haddington, Ian Gelder

Related: Watch our exclusive video interview with Aneil Karia, director of Surge