Review of Bryn Higgins’s Electricity, featured in Aesthetica Magazine Issue 62

Bryn Higgins’s Electricity opens up the world of epilepsy by creating a unique visual narrative which captures the first-person experience of living with the condition.

“Here’s the breath, here’s the breeze, here’s the shimmer. And I’m Alice, falling down the rabbit hole…” So opens our introduction to epilepsy and its effects: Bryn Higgins’s new feature film Electricity is an extraordinarily hyper-real examination of the condition. In contrast to traditional cinematic representations, which afford the audience the role of an observing bystander, Electricity takes them on the journey from normality, to overwhelming hallucinations, through confusion, memory loss and the gradual piecing together of reality alongside the protagonist Lily. Smart, quick-witted and endearingly honest, Lily is the force pulling the film together in its eye-opening depiction of an oft-misunderstood condition.

Adapted from Ray Robinson’s 2006 novel of the same name, Electricity provides a first-person insight into a life with temporal lobe epilepsy, a form that results in extraordinary hallucinations and significant memory loss. Higgins was immediately attracted to Robinson’s story and therefore recognised its potential for cinematic interpretation. He says: “It’s an incredibly visual book. Ray is a graphic designer as well as a novelist, and the text vividly describes this inner world in quite a heightened way.” In addition, the first-person narrative was of paramount importance and keeping Lily “there with you the whole way through” creates an intimate portrayal and gives a face and personality to the condition through Lily’s “brash, defiant, sensitive and damaged, but also very funny, voice.”

Having suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy since she was a baby, when her mother threw her down the stairs, Lily lives and works in a small coastal town in the North East of England. The close-knit community there means that the doctors know her, she has a safe haven in her room and the support of her boss Ray, a surrogate father figure to the smart but vulnerable Lily. We are introduced to Lily as a sassy girl, chatted up by boys and excitedly getting ready for a date when suddenly a seizure hits. Lily’s internal monologue keeps the audience right with her all the way through. She anticipates it coming, starts “falling down the rabbit hole,” lays her coat on the pavement ready for the convulsions, and the screen blacks out just as Lily does, concerned strangers blurring in her vision and then disappearing. Coming round in the ambulance Lily is matter-of-fact about her condition and she returns home to the message she has daubed on her wall, “Don’t worry home bed sleep be OK love Lily xxx”, but the suddenness and visceral nature of the seizure is a jolt to the viewer, a stark introduction to the complexities of Lily’s life. The next day Lily hears her estranged mother has died and, returning to the unhappy memories of her childhood home and her older brother Barry, she is compelled to begin a search for her younger brother, and only childhood ally, Mikey, in order to fairly split their inheritance.

Lily travels to London, where Mikey was last traced, and the city is a brutal assault on the senses. She is disorientated, upset and stressed, and finally tracks down Mikey’s ex-girlfriend, who is living as a single mother with Barry’s son. During Lily’s search she begins a casual relationship with a man called Dave, and gains a housemate and loyal friend called Mel. When Lily eventually finds Mickey, the disappointment is palpable. Embittered by years in prison, distrustful, frequently drunk and distant, Mikey is far from the kindly younger brother of Lily’s memories and her upset brings on a shocking seizure (her fourth since arriving in London) that causes Dave to walk away from their burgeoning relationship. Lily is overwhelmed and distraught, and what follows is a process of discovery and acceptance of her own agency and independence from Mikey and her past.

Lily’s journey is a sort of odyssey, passing through different travails and tribulations, but Higgins also likens it to Alice in Wonderland (and temporal lobe epilepsy is also subject to episodes called “Alice in Wonderland syndrome”), with Mikey as the white rabbit and London as the rabbit hole. For Lily, London is a “bit of a monster and certainly a threatening place because it’s so complex and visual.” In addition to Alice in Wonderland syndrome, temporal lobe epileptics are also at risk of a condition called hypergraphia, where sufferers become obsessed with graphic images, and we see this briefly when Lily contemplates the Tube map. London is overly stimulating, dangerous and threatening to someone like Lily, and through her seizures and their visibility, we feel these effects with her.

Agyness Deyn in the title role connects with the audience, and the resulting empathy one feels for Lily as a suffering but ultimately strong woman prevents the film’s sometimes heavy subject matter from feeling too dark. She intertwines effortlessly with the character: “Agyness had a lovely style in her interpretation of Lily; she had a sense of rhythm. There isn’t a lot of acting – she’s simply being Lily.” This sense of lightness is emphasised in Lily’s relationships with Al and Mel, and in selective editing from the novel to ensure a balance in tone. Higgins made the decision, for example, to remove Lily’s abusive step-father as a character because “in the end the scenes that featured him made the film too dark [and] we had other issues to contend with. I didn’t want it to be seen as another grim British movie. I hope it’s an uplifting story about a strong woman.” The soundtrack, including songs from Ronnie Lane and The Black Keys, contributes this lighter note alongside the heavier subject matter and gives Lily a sense of freedom and abandon that seems to emphasise her strength. While composer John Lunn’s score, created using an eclectic mix of what Higgins describes as “weird musical machinery from the sixties and seventies, combined with synthesizers” promotes “a cohesion to the whole thing and a poeticism, helping to guide you through the story”.

Lily’s seizures and their precursors form the most affecting, disorientating part of the film. They provide a unique narrative vehicle to spur the story onwards and Higgins admits that the seizures are “very appetizing to filmmakers.” While many of the seizures are enhanced by CGI, Higgins also experimented with a series of in-camera effects, inspired by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (1964), using lighting, glass and prisms. The result is an insight into Lily’s mind that seems other-worldly but far from fake. Rather than having the impersonal, removed effect of most CGI work, the seizures are more like memories, more organic; they’re juddering and unpredictable. This is a very personal and complex technological approach. Higgins comments: “The grammar of film works very well with some of the features of epilepsy, especially the way that it affects your memory and perception of reality. Switching memory on and off was interesting.” Indeed, the film’s episodes and cuts exactly follow Lily’s memories and recollections of real and imagined events and so the narrative is built according to “the way that Lily moves through the world and experiences the world.” These episodes and the memory loss are cinematically “a great way to reflect her loneliness” and they emphasise Lily’s vulnerability especially in her disorientation in the days following a seizure, and the manner in which she has left herself little notes around her flat in anticipation of further memory loss. The holes created by the seizures transform Lily’s memory into “a malfunctioning clock”, which leads to confusing situations such as her first (but really her second) encounter with Mel. She calls her to thank her for her help after having suffered a seizure. Because Lily (and consequently the audience) had blacked out before Mel appeared she is left in the odd situation of arranging to meet Mel, not knowing what she looks like.

The challenge of final editing lay in striking the balance between Lily’s inner world and the external realities: “It’s a really hard thing to judge without having it in front of you and originally we had a couple more incidents that we cut because we didn’t want repetition or to give the impression of them happening to her all the time.” This balance is carefully struck and Electricity effectively melds “a road movie with some very abstract stuff.” Higgins wanted to “stay ahead of the audience so that you get a glimpse and then it’s gone. The need for medical accuracy certainly set some barriers.”

Medical accuracy was foremost in Higgins’s mind throughout the filmmaking “not least because some of the funding was coming from the Wellcome Trust. We had to be rigorous and correct about what we were portraying, rather than taking licence with trippy hallucinations.” Higgins researched the different forms and perimeters of epilepsy and was concerned with keeping the film “all quite literal. It’s not creating anything, there are no dragons in the room or more elaborate constructions.” To do this the script was “carefully vetted by a leading expert on epilepsy who would tell us where things were wrong and more specifically what we needed to change,” and interviews with epileptics were also useful in providing an insight into so-called “partial seizures” that often form a pre-cursor to the full, black-out seizures. “What is so interesting about those is that people are still conscious and still have their memory,” so their accounts enabled us to make the film illuminating for the viewer.

Higgins researched symptoms such as visions of “auras, almost spectral figures on the periphery of one’s vision” as well as “colours swirling around and changing… sometimes seeing things appear where they shouldn’t” and “more hallucinatory things, like a patterned carpet starting to move,” and concluded that the seizures brought on by temporal lobe epilepsy are by their very nature “pretty extraordinary distortions of the real world”. Because of this, adhering to medical accuracy was not particularly restrictive in terms of creative expression. In addition, Higgins was keen to show another side to epilepsy. “Traditionally, there has been a huge amount of taboo and prejudice regarding epilepsy” and films such as The Exorcist have portrayed it in a demonic way, while in some languages the very word for epilepsy is the same as “possession”. So Higgins valued “the opportunity to break some of those misconceptions and demonstrate how complex it is, and, in some ways, how rich it is too.” He gives the example of Dostoyevsky writing about the extraordinary feelings of elation that epilepsy gave him, claiming that he’d give the rest of his life for another 10 seconds of that feeling. Higgins states: “I thought that was fascinating, and it’s something that we begin to get into with Lily – there’s almost a fear among epileptics of what would it be like to not have the condition because it’s becomes so much a part of them.”

This unconventional insight into the hidden strengths of the illness further informed the construction of Lily’s character to make her a very creative, visual individual. The first scene in her room highlights that she is an artist: her walls are covered with drawings, mantras and slightly chaotic collections of curios that attract her avid eye. The set of Lily’s room was made in collaboration with the artist Natalie Edwards, who has created both a safe haven and a visually stimulating environment for Lily to return home to. Higgins “loved the idea of putting in a few visual clues, such as the gangly figure above the door – to me that was always Mikey”. Visual clues are continued in Lily’s clothes which are a nineties-influenced riot of sequins and neon which Deyn closely influenced: “while there were some risks with the neon coat, it speaks of Lily’s inner world. I think it makes good sense that Lily would be attracted to quite vibrant colours and costumes. That’s very much Lily, she’s standing out.”

Lily’s heightened sense of colour and aesthetic were also informed by Higgins’s huge variety of visual references, most notably the abstract, wide-angled photography of Bill Brandt and his ability to capture a nude while “turning bodies into landscapes” which reminded Higgins of “the Alice in Wonderland effect.” Furthermore, the experimental colour development in the night photography of Alfred Stieglitz encouraged Higgins to manipulate the lens to powerful effect, and the social realism and tongue-in-cheek celebration of British life (and the British seaside in particular) of Martin Parr brings a grittier black humour to Electricity’s aesthetics. Together these artists and the condition of temporal lobe epilepsy itself have extensively informed the film’s final cut to create a visual feast and a perceptively sympathetic and eye-opening portrayal of epilepsy. Electricity not only puts a human face to a misunderstood condition but also projects a perception that is simultaneously otherworldly and rooted in reality. Electricity is released nationwide on 12 December through Soda Pictures. www.sodapictures.com.

Ruby Beesley