Ben Whishaw Takes us Down With him in the Claustrophobic and Unrelenting ‘Surge’

A still from 'Surge;. Joe (Ben Whishaw) is seen in a lift, his face pressed against the purple-tinted metallic wall, a blurred reflection peers out. He is a man in his 30s, white, with short black hair and a close shave, a mole on his jaw.

The opening scenes of Surge follow Ben Whishaw’s Joe in his job as an airport security officer, in which he is unhappy and unsuccessful. Immediately, the claustrophobic close-up shots and handheld camera movements place us uncomfortably close and work to create a dizzying effect to these workplace scenes. This camera work and tone are maintained throughout the opening as we follow him in his day to day life; we see him at work dealing with difficult travellers with a biting indifference, see him scowling while watching Michael McIntyre on his TV, suffering sleepless nights because of his neighbour’s motorbike and then experiencing the most awkward and unglamorous hit and run as the result of his elderly fathers terrible driving. The camera never travels too far away from Joe, and when it isn’t close-up it’s slowly zooming in to find him, soundtracked by the constant hum of background noises, from crowds to traffic to motorbikes or the microwave. This captures the painful banality of Joe’s life in intimate detail.

These scenes are both banal and increasingly tense. Every encounter seems to emit the same feeling as a whistling kettle that’s almost at boiling. The scenes are fused with an unstable electricity that could culminate in an explosion at any second and this roundly encapsulates the culture of stress and threat that the capitalist systems are built on. The boiling point comes during a birthday dinner with his parents in which Joe continues his strange ritual of biting down on glass and cutlery with his teeth, this time finally smashing a glass cup and cutting his mouth. He runs out of his parent’s house and his demeanour completely changes and his world opens up, and the film becomes louder and even more frantic. He acts on his strange impulses resulting in some excruciating and uncomfortable scenes but also some surprisingly tender ones, with his despondent and argumentative parents (Ellie Haddington and Ian Gelder) and his coworker Lily (Jasmine Jobson). 

The film becomes a labyrinthine journey of self-liberation and madness with an unforgettable performance from Whishaw. He gurns, grimaces and blankly stares his way through the film, heightening the absurdity and making it difficult, as a viewer, to approach him emotionally. It’s confusing and unsettling but carried through with great conviction. And so is the film’s mood, which is unflinching and unchanging even as we go from the dreary workplace opening scenes to Joe’s turn as a manic bank robber. The film almost feels deadpan and this mood grounds the films absurd imagery. 

This labyrinthine journey follows the same kind of narrative structure to other films that go on a similar ‘journey’ ie. the mental descent of someone during a 24 hour period, but the setting gives it a unique perspective. Joe, and the film, don’t travel very far but familiar and conventional places take on new meanings the further down we go. The London setting is the pulse of the film but never fully in focus physically, it’s only ever clear in the soundscape which is largely made up of background noise from the streets. This keeps the location vividly alive while nailing its colours to the mast with the unflinching camera glued to Joe.  A plot that would usually rely on the setting and mise-en-scene to create a transportive, mesmeric effect creates this largely through Wishaw’s performance, which is a heavy burden to bear and might not have worked in a lesser actors hands. But he carries it off, and leads us through an explosive tale of one worker’s surge towards a meaningful life.

Surge is out in cinemas now

by Madeleine Sinclair

Madeleine (she/her) is a film student at the University of Winchester currently working on a dissertation on women killers in giallo films. She’s a big horror fan (the tackier the better) and also loves sci-fi and fantasy. Right now, she thinks her favourite films are Pan’s LabyrinthThe Wicker Man and Deep Red but she is also very indecisive. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @madeleinia and Letterboxd here.

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