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BERLINALE 2020 Panorama

Review: Surge

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- BERLINALE 2020: Ben Whishaw delivers a top-notch performance as an unhinged airport security worker in Aneil Karia's intense debut

Review: Surge
Ben Whishaw in Surge

Surge [+see also:
interview: Aneil Karia
film profile
]
travelled through the Panorama strand of the 70th Berlin Film Festival with cinematography reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers' Rosetta and a principal character with echoes of Michael Douglas's William “D-Fens” Foster in Falling Down. It's the first feature by British filmmaker Aneil Karia, whose CV boasts acclaimed shorts and a high-profile directing gig on the Netflix show Top BoySurge sees him reunite with Ben Whishaw, the star of his 2013 short film Beat. Karia and Whishaw take us on a ride through London with a man who has reached the end of the runway and has decided to jump off the plane.

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It's the story of Joseph (Whishaw), a security guard whose job is to process people and get them through the security gates at an airport. He is a bit of a loner. He walks through the bustling airport on his own, wearing his blue uniform and sporting a cropped haircut. He sits separate from his co-workers in the staff room, almost eating the fork along with his cake as he listens to his co-workers talk about technology. Later that day – his birthday, as it turns out – he's sitting on a sofa watching television on his own.

When Joseph goes to see his parents, mum Joyce (Ellie Haddington) and dad Alan (Ian Gelder), it becomes apparent that he's always been nagged and baited by them. His mother, in particular, criticises and jabs at him, getting upset when he walks into the kitchen and sees her preparing a surprise cake. By now, Stuart Bentley's camera is roving, and there's lots of tight framing and muted colours. A sense of claustrophobia becomes palpable. As Joseph's frustration rises, his anger boils over and glass breaks – nothing will ever be the same again. On the train ride home, he indulges in some odd sniffing behaviour, spotted by a young girl, the emerging signals that Joseph is an emotionally browbeaten anti-hero on a descent.

Whishaw was born to play roles like this, where he can show oddness through little tics and facial expressions. He carries the movie as the unhinged Joseph makes it his mission to get his co-worker Lily (Jasmine Jobson) an HDMI cable for her new television, by any means necessary. The plot is not the movie's strong point; the strength of the film comes from Whishaw's central performance. Despite the unrelenting nature of the unhinged Joseph, Whishaw makes him a character worth rooting for, whether he is at weddings, visiting banks or just walking down the street. It's easy to see why Whishaw won a top acting prize for this turn when Surge debuted at Sundance.

While the relationship with Joyce is well drawn, the connection with Lily could have been more fleshed out. It's hard to comprehend why Lily indulges him. Even with its flimsy plot, there is a lot of pleasure to be had from just jumping on board this bullet train, occasionally hopping off at stations where scenes play out that provide a window into Joseph's fractured mind-set. Karia does a remarkable job of showing a world with lots of communication tools but little in the way of real connections in an unabating film that just doesn't come up for air.

Surge was produced by the UK's Rooks Nest Entertainment and is sold by Protagonist Pictures.

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