BBC Three describes its 2014 film Electricity as:
“An astonishing journey seen through the eyes of a young woman whose epilepsy brings extraordinary hallucinations as she searches for her lost brother.”
Having now watched this twice, I wholeheartedly agree and am in fact still enthralled. Which is why this will be a far more in depth review than you will have usually seen here on Film Junkie.
I have focal onset epilepsy – where I have partial complex seizures (which causes impairment of consciousness) and secondary generalized tonic clonic seizures (also known as grand mal seizures) – for which I take Oxcarbazepine and Levetiracetam (more commonly known as ‘Keppra’).
Electricity – directed by Bryn Higgins – tells the story of Lily O’Connor (played by Agyness Deyn), who has temporal lobe epilepsy (which is the most common form of epilepsy). Electricity is very much Lily’s story: she is the narrator and therefore the sole driver of the film by which we see the condition from Lily’s POV at all times. This also gives Lily the control which is stolen away from her through her condition. The opening credits are aesthetically stunning, where characters float /fly through darkness amongst specks of light to a beautifully, surreal soundtrack, and this very much reminded me of my own auras (pre-seizure occurrences). This sequence is repeated later on in the film – like mirroring the repetitive sequences of a seizure. The opening scenes of the first act portray Lily as just like any normal young girl – flirty, spunky, attractive, and carefree. And then her first seizure of the film occurs within the first three and a half minutes of the film. Lily in her own words, describes what she feels during the onset of her seizure:
“Here’s the breath, here’s the breeze, here’s the shimmer… Falling down the rabbit hole” (Lily)
Post-seizure, it is clear from her facial expressions that this is not the first time which is confirmed soon after through her dialogue: she feels like a nuisance, like she is wasting everybody’s time.
After a seizure, you do feel so embarrassed that you want to be invisible.
When her pills are stolen in London and she has to go and see the GP in London for an emergency prescription, she at first feels like a nuisance, however this soon changes when she becomes very much annoyed at being questioned and doubted, and takes it as a personal attack on her handling of her own condition. As an epileptic, the only control you have is how you deal with the uncontrollable:
“Thrash, get up and get on with it. That’s what I say” (Lily)
I definitely felt empathetic watching Lily in that chair, feeling like her control was being taken away from her.
Early on in the film, we discover that Lily’s epilepsy does have a possible cause (which according to NHS Choices as well as my consultants, is very rare): at the age of two, her abusive mother threw her down the stairs when Lily wouldn’t stop crying. Lily and her siblings are eventually taken from their mother and separated by social services, therefore, when Lily finds out that her mother has died, the subsequent scenes are stomach wrenching. When she slaps her dead mother’s face, as they echo in the cold hospital room, we cannot see these actions as vindictive. We understand that she holds her mother responsible for the cup she has been forced to bear (later on in the film, Lily has a flashback to a time when she has a fit in the bath and her mother ignores her as she cuddles up to her lover). In the second act of the film, Lily throws herself into trying to find the brother who protected her as a child, Mikey; she does this regardless of the severity of her condition, which increases to detrimental levels throughout the course of the film. To her, epilepsy is just a part of life – not a part of who she is – she takes her pills without even really thinking about it:
“Measuring my life in pills; two in the morning, two in the afternoon, two in the evening, like full stops just how life keeps happening in between” (Lily)
Pretty much like I do:
Towards the final act of the film when she is forced to change her medication yet again, her words speak loudly with feelings of hopelessness, exasperation and pain:
“They talk and talk and talk […] it’s snow falling on my brain”
Like snow, these words to her are an illusion, because like many epileptics who have had many medication changes, she’s heard it all before: the consultant thinks that there’s a good chance that the seizures will decrease in severity. At least I’m polite to the clinicians’ faces – Lily on the other hand tells it like it is. I do also find it patronizing when clinicians say to me “don’t forget to take your medication” like after two years I’m suddenly going to forget. You cannot forget to take your medication because your seizures will never let you forget who you are! And for Lily, after years and years of meaningless medication, she does make the choice to give up because in her own words:
“she knows who she is”.
New drugs change you:
“they make me feel like a ghost”(Lily)
I myself, have just recently changed medication, which includes fortnightly dosage increases; some days I don’t even know who I am. Some days I drift along so drugged up, I don’t even know what day it is.
In a scene where Lily is on an escalator in a tube station, she describes herself feeling like she is “waiting for the fit to come” which many epileptics describe as the “aura” (the pre-seizure). This is where you know that a seizure is going to come. Sometimes you do everything you can: you go back to memories to try and stop it, you concentrate on your breathing, and you focus on where you are to keep you in the here and now to stop you from falling; this we see from Lily’s subtle actions, such as closing her eyes and taking deep breaths to calm herself in order to prevent a seizure. Throughout the film, the camera is utilized to create a sense of uncomfortable illusion: sometimes it is clear that the camera is handheld, and shots become out of focus, all of which make you feel uncomfortable, as you become unsure of what you’re seeing is real or not – which is exactly what I feel when I am experiencing an aura.
Before her seizure on the tube, Lily displays repetitive actions before she falls (another signature of a pre-epileptic episode), causing people to stare at her. The word “stare” in itself brings negative connotations, because people do make negative assumptions and the word epilepsy gives off negative connotations to many. I myself have suffered stigma due to my epilepsy – especially in public. Whenever I’ve had seizures people either:
- point and laugh at the “Fit-tastic spastic” (what the kids on the estate called Lily);
- stare in horror or disgust;
- completely ignore.
While writing this review, I stumbled upon a post written by Leza Warkentin called: ‘Husband Had A Seizure in Public and Nobody Wanted To Help Him’.
It’s a beautiful piece, written from her perspective on the negative reactions from people when her husband has seizures in public. The following extract stood out the most for me:
“Their fear inserted itself into the situation like a physical presence… During his last seizure, it was almost overwhelming. I felt so alone, advocating for my unconscious husband within a crowd of very fearful people.”
She describe who people would avert their gaze, and how these types of reactions make it seem that he is less human than anybody else, which is exactly how I felt the last time I had a seizure on public transport. When I vented on Facebook, the most common response was “how were people to know that you were having a seizure?” and I was also asked if I was wearing an identity tag, which Lily is also asked by the consultant, to which she replies:
“Because I’m not a f****** dog”(Lily)
These responses from people shift the blame from others onto us, and Lily feels that a tag dehumanizes her, which I have to agree with. Later on in the film, a line that resonated with me particularly personally was:
“I’m not a spaz… I have epilepsy is all”
When Lily is asked to stay by Mel, she asks:
“You forgot to ask me the most important question […] Am I guna spaz out and piss all over the place every so often?”
Lily uses controversial language here, however this is a feeling I have felt everyday even before I was diagnosed and very much afterwards. During the final act of the film, Lily finally finds Mikey, however she is bitterly disappointed by the initial reunion. Her brother has changed in the time they have been apart (as has she) which she is forced to eventually face up to, and she also has to face up to the severity of her condition. This unfortunately sends her over the edge and although she tries to use alcohol and sex to prevent the inevitable from coming (the “big fit”), it happens anyway.
On IMDB, many criticize Electricity for being ‘grief-porn’; while they focus on the narrative of sibling conflict, they unfortunately fail to acknowledge that the film brings a common disability but also commonly misunderstood disability to the forefront of cinema, which in my opinion, no other film has managed to do. This is one of the reasons why I love independent cinema because the independent genre has more guts to push seemingly uncomfortable subjects into our faces. Of course Lily’s relationship with her siblings is painful: her brothers show no regards to her condition until it is almost too late, but through this disregard, they aggravate her condition.
Another reason why audiences may disregard Electricity is because unfortunately epilepsy does still scare people. When Lily has a particularly violent seizure in Mel’s flat, Mel confesses that she felt “completely powerless” and that she “thought you were going to die”.
For some of us, at first when the seizures start, they are terrifying, and then they become almost normal for us, which is what it is for Lily. She is used to losing one or two days after a seizure; when people in public do respond to her in a crisis and call 999, she no longer sees her seizures as an emergency but just “another one” to add to the list.
Of course, regardless of how accustomed you may become to the interruptions, there is never, ever a convenient time to have a seizure. All you want is to be normal; before Lily’s seizure while she is with Dave, when she feels it coming on, she desperately pleads:
“Lightness, like a wave and I’m going, no. Let me stay normal here at least”
And finally, post-seizure days can be the most tiring and painful. Not only have you lost days from your memory, you have also lost days to pain. You feel like your brain is working against you. Lily herself remarks:
“They’ve told me brain has no feeling, no nerves. It don’t [sic] make sense, this thing that causes my body so much pain, it can’t feel pain itself”
There are electrical storms within your brain, sending currents through your body, and yet your brain has no connection with the damage that is occurring everywhere else.
For me, Electricity is a masterpiece.
I recommend that if you haven’t yet seen it, and especially with National Epilepsy Week (15-21 May) just around the corner, you take the plunge and uncover a world I hope that you will never have to experience yourself.