Ben Wishaw is probably best known as the boy quartermaster Q in the last few James Bond films, or as the voice of Paddington Bear in the deeply horrid Paddington movies. But he’s also a pretty good actor, as he showed opposite Hugh Grant in the political drama A Very English Scandal, and with so many high profile projects to his name, from Mary Poppins Returns to The Lobster, it was only a matter of time before Wishaw landed a big, showcase role, and Surge is it.
The title is on the money; we might talk about Surge pricing, and the word has a new, sinister modern connotation; in this case, however, we’re looking at a character study of mental illness, and a man who feels an emotional surge that causes him to act in a way that’s socially unacceptable. Joseph (Wishaw) gets the Stansted Express from Tottenham Hale every morning, a routine that would shake anyone’s sense of themselves. He works for whatever a British airport thinks of as the TSA, patting down flight risks, separating customers from their metal objects or shoes. But Joseph gets sent home for erratic behaviour, and a promise to help a workmate connect a laptop to her television sends Joseph into a violent decent into madness.
Getting an HDMI handshake to work is generally a tricky business, and Aneil Karia’s film doesn’t hold back on the gory details; Joseph finds the right cable in a convenience store, but his debit card is declined, sending him to a cashpoint and then a bank in search of cash. The amateur crime spree that follows has led to Surge being marketed as a ‘thriller’, which is surely isn’t unless observing mental illness thrills you. It’s a gripping, yet utterly depressing drama that focuses on such unhappy details as Joseph’s loveless parents and his involuntary biting down on a glass during a household dinner, leaving him with grotesque, bloody injuries to his mouth. The publicity material decribes Joseph’s journey as one of self-liberation, but self-destruction might be just as approprate a word.
Surge leaves the viewer with questions, not all of them positive. The film observes Joseph as one might observe a passing stranger in the street, never quite getting inside his head. Some details, like a coarse best man’s speech at a wedding Joseph crashes, seem farcically exaggerated and let down the potential seriousness of the subject. Wishaw immerses himself in the part, and his performance is committed and top notch. But while compelling, Surge is a hard film to enjoy, trading on the edge of exploiting mental illness for entertainment purposes. Karia’s film, developed from a short, just about falls on the right side of exploitation, but it’s a close run thing…
Surge is released in UK cinemas today May 28th 2021. Thanks to Vertigo for access.