I’ve never had a fit, and to be honest, it’s not high on my list of things to do. But after watching Bryn Higgins’ Electricity, I feel like I’ve got an inkling of how horrible it is. This tightly focused character drama puts its audience in the shoes of Lily (Agyness Deyn), a cool, smart and attractive young woman with debilitating epilepsy.
As we open in the Yorkshire seaside town of Saltburn by the Sea, we meet Lily working the change counter in a seafront amusement arcade. Today, she’s having some fun flirting with a customer, teasing him as he clumsily chats her up. But he’s nice enough, so the two swap numbers and make a date. Later, dressed to the nines, she walks down the seafront, spots him and waves. Then the world ends. Shooting sparks of colour tear apart the frame and the world heaves, swells and distorts. Blackness.
This is just the first of Lily’s many fits. Having been thrown down the stairs as a child by her abusive mother, she’s developed severe epilepsy that manifests in unpredictable fits. These leave her bloody and bruised, embarrassing her and terrifying those around her. On top of that, she lives under the shadow of ‘the big one,’ a seizure so bad it’d be lights out for good. We soon see how her condition limits her, forcing to her to stay around people who know what she suffers from and confining her to the town and requiring her to be constantly medicated.
This is all about to change, though. The meat of the film involves solving a familial mystery. With the death of her mother and resulting inheritance, Lily vows to track down her missing younger brother. She arrives in London and the film morphs into a disjointed detective story in which Lily battles against her worsening condition, changing medication and the ghosts of her past.
Electricity is damn impressive from start to finish, entirely anchored by Deyn’s courageous, sensitive and touching performance as Lily. She’s a fascinating character: simultaneously vulnerable and aggressive. We warm to her almost instantly and while our initial reaction is pity, she all but dares us to feel sorry for her.
This combines into a strange cocktail of emotions. We become emotionally involved in her life so quickly that we root for her, always on her side as she battles against thieves, liars and know-it-all doctors. At the same time, we’re forced to suppress the guilty urge to protect her. Her reaction to the paternalistic medical establishment in the film is complex; she knows her condition inside and out, listing off her past medication and dosage in quick, angry and precise terms, easily arguing down doctors who suggest changing her medication. This ties into her strong fatalistic streak: epilepsy is all but guaranteed to kill her, so why not let her choose when?
Lily is an aspiring actor’s dream, a role so good it’d be a crime to squander. Thankfully, Deyn is more than up to the task. In fact, by the time credits roll, she’s ceased to be a fashion model that’s dabbled in film (prior supporting roles in Clash of the Titans and Pusher not exactly setting the world on fire) and become one of the most promising young actors of her generation. If this film gets the exposure it deserves, I suspect she’s in line for some major nominations and hopefully wins come awards season. She’s got my vote.
Shoring up things in supporting roles are Paul Anderson and Christian Cooke as her older and younger brothers. Anderson, playing a louche professional poker player, teeters right on the edge of ridiculousness, his broad cement-mixer voice making a weirdly humourous contrast with his slick card-shark image. Cooke, playing the turbulent Mikey, the subject of Lily’s hunt, gets comparatively little screen time but uses every second to its fullest. There’s an astounding scene late in the film where he slowly builds into a paranoid tower of rage, throwing a tantrum like a gigantic, tattooed, muscled baby.
Bryn Higgins, previously known for his television work and little seen 2012 drama Unconditional, directs like he’s got something to prove. This results in the world of Electricity being meticulously thematically constructed; for example, the first images of Lily sitting confined within a perspex change booth while the amusement arcade flashes and blares around her outline the character’s relationship to the world before even a single line of dialogue is uttered. This care extends outwards to the art decorating Lily’s flat and to her careful costuming, ensuring that she’s the most fascinating thing in every shot.
Furthermore he also displays admirable restraint in depicting hallucinations. These are shot in such a way that we can’t quite grasp what we’re seeing, the world splintering into a kaleidoscope of symbols. There’s glimpses of ceilings transformed into the ocean, time sliced vertically through pinhole cameras, birds flying from mouths and sparking lightning bolts, cranking up the sensory overload to 11. Much of the film is naturalistic drama, but these trips into the avant-garde, apparently influenced by the work of Stan Brakhage, set the film apart from the usual Brit-flick.
I could go on, but if you’re not convinced by now then I don’t know what else to say. Electricity is a seriously great film, made by people with a burning desire to prove their talent. It’s a tremendous achievement on all fronts and a credit to the British film industry.
Electricity is a true cinematic treat and features a triumphant, breakthrough performance from Agyness Deyn.