Electric Dreams: 103 “The Commuter” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
For all the bombastic goings-on in intros from weeks prior, you’d be forgiven for presuming that the third episode of Electric Dreams, The Commuter (again, stunningly named after Phillip K. Dick’s 1953 story of the same name), would open in similarly heady fashion. We get the opposite of that in a subversion of expectation in The Commuter, with the legendary Timothy Spall simply making tea (with a used teabag fetched out of the bin). This is the first signifier that we’re in for an altogether different kind of story from Channel 4’s anthology series this week, with not even a hint of strange goings-on before the title card pops up. While the preceding two episodes have been happy to throw the kitchen sink at us from the off, The Commuter is more satisfied placing us in it.
Timothy Spall’s Ed works at a train station in Woking with his co-worker, Rudi Dharmalingam’s Bob (who has a contempt for Basingstoke) dealing with their usual day-to-day business. This existence is turned upside-down by the arrival of Linda (Tuppence Middleton), who requests a ticket to travel to Macon Heights- which, suspiciously, isn’t on the train’s route- and doesn’t seem to exist at all. After questioning its existence, Linda vanishes before Ed’s eyes, which he first dismisses as a “trick of the light”. When she returns and vanishes again under more questioning, Ed begins his journey of self-discovery and actual discovery of a place that can’t possibly exist.
When Ed travels to Macon Heights, we’re let in to a world that perfectly balances on the precipice of reality and un-reality. Macon Heights is sold as the “perfect town”, yet the reality of the location is almost equally unsettling, filmed in the real location of Poundbury in Dorset, which was designed and built to be a “high quality environment”, with director Tom Harper (mini-series War and Peace amongst his sizeable credits) admitting that they didn’t even need to dress the location as they would a normal set, such was the eerie nature of Poundbury. He, along with his production team therefore could craft a style that enhances this otherworldly reality. The initial visit of Ed to Macon Heights sees the town appearing ethereally from the fog, and his slow walk into it has an odd edge to it, with strangely archaic buildings and residents in bright dress, such as a just-engaged couple that Ed bumps into that could’ve stepped straight out of 50’s Americana, before he wanders into a diner (staffed by the terrific I, Daniel Blake’s Hayley Squires) that too belongs there.
The mystery of the town drives The Commuter, and it certainly had me questioning the true nature of it for the duration- was it purgatory? Was it a dream? The questions are methodically answered at the same pace as Ed discovers the truth, allowing us to emphasise with his journey as it progresses. Whilst Ed has a usual working life and loving wife Mary at home (Rebecca Manly), their son Sam (Anthony Boyle) is a very troubled individual. Whilst once a happy child, he has developed into a severely mentally ill teenager in trouble with the police (the nature of his act is left unsaid, but we can presume he struck out as he does to his mother) whose problems are only going to get worse. The troubles Sam faces will undoubtedly be sadly familiar to many parents, giving The Commuter a special emotional core that presents us with a different, closer to home kind of love than the love centred in the previous two Electric Dreams stories.
In fact, this love is exactly what leads into the science fiction elements that appear once the story has pulled into high gear and Ed discovers what Macon Heights really is, originally a housing project that, due to financial problems, was never created, with its creator committing suicide. His daughter is Linda, somehow having created and now owning the town. Macon Heights is a refuge for those suffering from great pain, seemingly unprejudiced with who is allowed in, its residents including rape victims and dangerous individuals. You only need to believe in Macon Heights possible world and the happiness it offers. Not all can see it- Martine (Anne Reid), a journalist Ed meets has tried to investigate its existence, to no avail. Linda’s nature is never explained- she could be any number of things, but the bottom line of it is that she offers another way- that you don’t have to spend your life in suffering, you just must commute to Macon Heights and indulge in a better way, a “perfect” way. It seems she offers individuals this chance, and this is how Ed can see Macon Heights- she’s offering him this chance.
Like some twisted devil offering a forbidden fruit or an angel offering a mercy gift, Linda opens the world of Macon Heights to Ed and allows him to see its power. Ed is a man suffering himself. The performances of Manly and Boyle are terrific, but Timothy Spall shows exactly why more should regard him as a national treasure, with a conflicted, sensitive showing that balances a man suffering a breaking home life with a façade of the British stiff upper lip (“never better” he replies to his co-worker Bob when asked of his feelings). In a tender scene with his wife Mary, they discuss if they’re frightened of their son. Ed is, but Mary is more frightened of Ed himself, stating that his “fake smile” scares her, that Ed used to be like Sam. As Ed turns to sleep and flashes a slowly dropping smile, it’s incredible expression. While it’ll come to no surprise to anyone who has seen Spall’s incredible performance in Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, his acting masterclass throughout The Commuter paints the perfect portrait of a man with a dutiful love for his family torn between a terrible choice.
It’s a question no parent ever even wants to humour, but the uncomfortable fact is that many will have at some point wondered what their life would be without their children, and just how much they’d be willing to give to erase it all and live an easier, unburdened life. It’s a decision that taunts Ed, as the unreality of Macon Heights begins to bleed through into his world. After his first visit there, he returns home to see streets once dirtied looking pristine (with the Macon Heights stylistic colour palette of yellow and blue seen on some cars), and his son seemingly erased from reality, with his room empty and changed. This reality warping is even seeming to be accepted initially by Ed, as he embraces his wife and dismisses the what could’ve beens and maybes, insisting they have what is and that’s that. Yet despite this, he’s drawn back to the memory of his son, tearing up watching old family videos before deciding what he truly wants. Ed’s mesmerising journey (scripted by prolific writer Jack Throne, responsible for Skins and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) is one afflicted with delusions of a better life.
Macon Heights is a lie. Ed’s return there to confront Linda and regain his son causes cracks in the idyllic nature of the town, with his suffering bringing the pain of the residents back to them (“not here” says Squire’s unnamed waitress as Ed begins to weep). Macon Heights is a relief from suffering, but it isn’t a solution. When the pain of Ed begins to seep through, this causes a relapse of Squire’s waitress as she tells Ed her moving story (“you need to hear” she pleads with him) in one of The Commuter’s most affecting scenes. The fake nature of the town, from the seeming time-loop its going through (the newly-engaged couple clearly get engaged a lot…) to even children that Ed questions the reality of, it’s a nirvana built on good intentions but not one that can hide the truth of life and its problems.
The Commuter is the most emotionally fraught instalment of Electric Dreams so far. The message at its beating, passionate heart is that although at times it may seem less painful, more effective to bury your head in the sand to deal with suffering, living in a manufactured world away from the rest of reality, only the truest of love and life’s greatest, real moments can come by facing the truth and life’s difficulties. Ed is taken through an ordeal, yet at the climax he chooses the reality he knows and cares about, the one that is unquestionably his reality no matter the other option (like he says, all we have is “what is”). No matter what dreams and temptations he’s shown, it’s his choice to make, and he chooses the life where his son exists, one where they can guide through his troubles together as a family. Powerful then, that the widest and truest smile from the man who has a “fake” smile comes from returning to his troubled reality- because he loves his son.