Source: Paul Stephenson
Directed by Bryn Higgins
Starring Agyness Deyn and Tom Georgeson
On general release in the UK from 12 December 2014
Lily has to live in the moment, as her epilepsy grounds her with a ferocious, relentless brutality. The film immerses us in her experience of her seizures
Watching the new British film Electricity, two things become strikingly apparent. One is the way in which the face and body of certain individuals can add so much to the meaning of a film, and the other is how rarely we are invited as spectators to identify with unwell women on screen.
Electricity, which is based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Ray Robinson, tells the story of a young woman named Lily as she searches for her long-lost brother to ensure that he gets his share of their late mother’s estate. Lily is played by model-turned-actress Agyness Deyn, and the film falls squarely on her able shoulders as she appears in every scene and is the source of the film’s dominant subjective position.
Lily has epilepsy, and the film’s striking originality lies in its evocation of Lily’s experience of her epilepsy but also in its refusal to allow the condition to dominate the narrative arc or outcome. As Lily says to her boss and friend Al, played by the stalwart of British film and television Tom Georgeson, “I’m not a spasmo, for fuck’s sake, I have epilepsy, that’s all.”
Deyn excels as an earnest and honest Lancashire girl, coming from a troubled childhood home, where her mother threw her down the stairs and caused her epileptic condition. Her older brother Barry is a wide-boy poker player, and her younger brother Mikey (a former jailbird) has been missing for four years. Within the fairly conventional storyline of a girl coming down South to search for her brother, there are moments of piercing emotional honesty, such as when Lily sees the body of her dead mother in hospital. Having looked at her face and her hands under the sheet, Lily slaps the corpse’s head twice, hard. When she meets the downtrodden Mikey, she goes to touch him gently, but he leaps away from her like a scalded cat.
Mikey, Barry and Lily share a background of trauma and solidarity, and this is conveyed through the intimacy of their relationships in the present as well as through a few impressionistic flashbacks. The impact of their childhood is captured exquisitely in pinhole-camera images, where they appear to float, frozen in time.
Lily, however, also has to live in the moment, as her epilepsy grounds her with a ferocious and relentless brutality. As she says to a sympathetic paramedic: “Every time I get a bloody date some bastard calls an ambulance.” The fits come regularly, and the film immerses us in Lily’s experience of them. Voice-over announces the onset of symptoms described in an affective way: “Here’s the breath, here’s the breeze, here’s the shimmer, and I’m Alice, falling down the rabbit hole.” Prior to this, we see her untie her jumper from around her waist and stretch it out in front of her. It’s puzzling, but once we’ve seen Lily fall to the ground we realise that she was preparing to break her fall.
This is how the film works to draw us into her world. By focusing on the sharp corners of tables in the outside world, as opposed to the rubber-edged ones in her flat, we become aware of the hazards that surround Lily.
The film uses point-of-view shots to convey her perspective, as her hand gropes along walls and reaches out for things to grab on to. This technique has long been used for first-person sequences, from Robert Montgomery’s detective noir Lady in the Lake (1947) to The Prodigy’s video for Smack My Bitch Up (1997) and beyond. Electricity does much more than this, however, to convey Lily’s experience as a person with epilepsy negotiating the world around her. Showing how regular medication is a part of her daily life, Lily in voice-over comments: “Measuring my life in pills: two in the morning, two in the afternoon, two in the evening; like full stops. Just hope life keeps happening in between.”
This quotidian experience of the person with a medical condition is rarely featured in cinema. If it is, it forms part of the narrative trajectory: the danger of daughter Sarah slipping into a diabetic coma when she is separated from her insulin in David Fincher’s Panic Room (2002); or an intermittently featured medical prop, such as the asthmatic Fiamma’s inhaler in Jordan Scott’s Cracks (2009), which becomes the ultimate reason for a protagonist’s death. Lily’s epilepsy is a major element of her bodily, mental and social experience, but here it is not a narrative device. Her brutal attitude to her own epilepsy is “thrash, get up and get on with it”.
The film is more generous to her condition than she is. Sounds of crashing waves, flashing lights and morphing objects coalesce to evoke Lily’s febrile states. Her voice-over tells us about the experience of a fit: “An electric storm starts inside my head, and my brain just takes a detour.” The fits are evoked through a mixture of shots of Lily as she begins to feel unwell, hand-held images of what she sees and the blurred faces of people looking down at her on the ground. As the fits take hold, visual and aural evocations of electricity are accompanied by a building roar inside her head, although the director avoids a full sequence showing her having a seizure.
Lily’s journey to London to find her brother could be read as an Alice story, and in many ways it resembles a fairy tale: she’s on a quest that takes her from safety into danger and she meets a variety of characters who act as enablers, villains and tricksters. Deyn’s model-like capacity for transformation reinforces the idea of her being a princess at the heart of her own tale. Her face, with pale eyes, dark eyebrows and expressive mouth, is a symmetrical and responsive focus for the film’s intense study of her every twitch, flinch and tear. With striking looks – which are vampishly exotic when bedecked in sequins and metallic eyeshadow, but childlike and gangly when make-up free, eating chips and wearing ankle-socks – Deyn’s Lily is an innocent but realistic adventurer, who may be on a journey but is not heading for much of a transformation.
Lily’s body suffers every time she has a fit, and the grazes, cuts and bloody noses that she repeatedly suffers are shown in realistic detail, as is the attention required to clean them up. When her belongings are stolen, Lily needs to see a GP to get replacement drugs. In one of several scenes where Lily’s drug therapy becomes a battleground, the film highlights the vulnerability of a person on long-term medication when the medical profession decides to meddle. Patronised and dismissed by a know-all doctor, Lily reels off her history of medication with forensic accuracy, saying, “I don’t do ‘forget’, mate.”
Lily’s epilepsy is not going to go away, so even if Electricity is a fairy tale, the ending is never going to be conventional. But unlike Peter Segal’s 50 First Dates (2004), which proposes a happy-ever-after for brain-damaged Lucy (Drew Barrymore), Electricity resolves by Lily achieving the object of her quest and returning home safely. On this journey she has laid childhood ghosts to rest and done the right thing by her younger brother: a limited journey by cinematic standards, but this small story makes for an immense film.
When Lily chooses to stop taking her new medication because she wants to “clear her brain out”, she knows it could be fatal, but she needs to see what will happen. She finds out: she has a predictably severe seizure and ends up in hospital. “I’m sorry,” she says to Al, as she swallows her meds once more, “I’m not gonna die again, I’ve done that.”
Lily has tested her condition to its limit, and returns home without a cure or a handsome prince, but as a sole survivor and a resurgent one at that. One of film’s greatest challenges is to convey states of consciousness, but Electricity achieves this through formal and narrative deference to the subjective experience of a young woman living with a medical condition, immersing us in the spectrum of her unremitting daily life, from the banal to the surreal. In doing so, the film creates a unique and memorable heroine, demonstrating the richness that non-standard subjectivities – and performers – can bring to familiar stories.