Review: Ben Whishaw Gives a Tour de Force Performance in Director Aneil Karia's Stylish Thriller 'Surge'

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday October 25, 2021

Ben Whishaw in 'Surge'
Ben Whishaw in 'Surge'  (Source:FilmRise)

British actor Ben Whishaw gives a tour de force performance in director Aneil Karia's stylish thriller "Surge." He portrays an airport passenger screener who loses control and launches on a path of self-destruction that also is his road to self-realization over the course of 24 hours. Whishaw has already picked up the best actor award at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, for his volcanic performance.

In this, his feature-film directorial debut, Karia uses cinema verite elements to make a sweaty, claustrophobic character study of alienation and the survival instinct. Whishaw's intense performance is simultaneously revealing and enigmatic.

Joseph works at Stansted Airport security and has to scan and pat down travelers. He doesn't have friends outside of work and seems depressed and lonely. Job pressure and people gossiping about him at work is ramping up his anxiety. And on his birthday, he repeatedly has to deal with agitated travelers; eventually, his coworkers start to notice his erratic behavior.

Later, he goes to his parent's house to celebrate his birthday — grimly as it turns out; he is met with open hostility from his dad and withering comments from his mum. He bites on a glass and cuts his mouth, and runs out during the dinner.

Back at work, he busts in on a coworker who is out sick to see if she needs anything. They hook up; later, and as he tries to fix her TV, he runs to a corner store for a cheap connecting cable. When his bank card gets stuck in a machine he snaps — and robs the first of three banks he hits in one day.

Is his rampage a "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" moment of self-realization, or a psychotic break? As expressive as Whishaw is, this remains an open question.

Writers Rita Kalnejais and Rupert Jones give Joseph little to say, but Whishaw speaks volumes with his expressive physical performance and garbled vocal outbursts. In one scene he rips the mattress in a posh hotel so that he can cocoon himself for a minute.

Stuart Bentley's cinematography creates a transient urban landscape of crowded London streets that engulfs Joseph and ignites his feral instincts. Also compelling is composer Tujiko Noriko's atmospheric music.

But Karia should have pulled back on the shaky, hand-held camera that follow too close behind Joseph throughout his manic surges, ramping up the intensity in the manner of slasher films.

At key points in the film, there is suspension of disbelief to go along with plot points — the lag time of the London police to get to the bank heists, for instance. But Whishaw's high-wire performance keeps the story in believable motion. In the U.S. Whishaw has picked up the Sundance best actor nod, and he should get an Oscar nomination for his riveting performance.

"Surge" debuts on demand on Oct 25.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.