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Electric Malady (Film Review)

3 min read
Electric Malady (2023) film still

Looking up at the pine trees in a Swedish forest, Marie Lidén’s Electric Malady begins with the voice of the film’s subject William, describing a vivid memory of childhood wonder and excitement – “I thought life is gonna be so damn great”. Then, like a child, the camera follows William’s Dad silently through the snow to a cabin where he shows Lidén the cage he has built to house his son. The cage is made of copper, designed to help protect William who suffers from a condition known as electrosensitivity.

Though William’s situation is extremely specific and even disputed in some medical circles – there is something universally familiar in the abrupt transition from childhood dreaming to adulthood restriction. In this way, Electric Malady starts as it means to go on, because what follows is a beautiful portrait of both love and isolation, created by a director who clearly has empathy as her driving force. 

Existing underneath layers of copper-lined fabric, from a filmic perspective William’s presence as a kind of walking metallic orb feels curiously reminiscent of both Casey Affleck in A Ghost Story (2017) and the titular character of Frank (2012). But what makes this stranger-than-fiction tale precisely that, is that William’s elaborate headdress is not just an aesthetic metaphor worthy of an indie-darling filmmaker. Whilst acting as a striking visual assertion of his profound isolation to the film’s audience, to William these swathes of fabric are simply a necessity – his only defence to the radiation that he claims causes the screaming pain in his head. That, and the foil-encased bedroom that he is forced to spend most of his time in, alone and isolated from the rest of the world. 

Silently underpinning the entire film seems to be the question of how real of a condition electrosensitivity actually is – William is unable to receive benefits from the Swedish government because the state itself does not officially recognise it as a real affliction. But this question is not one that the film itself directly asks. Instead of being concerned about the validity of William’s condition, Lidén instead focuses on the unquestionable reality of his existence. This level of respect for her subject makes for a sensitive and often moving portrait of a man who has an inspiring reverence for life but is simply unable to live it to his full potential. 

What comes across as the most uplifting, although in many ways equally heartbreaking, aspect of Electric Malady is William’s parents unwavering dedication to their son. “They say hope is the last thing to leave you”, William’s father says, “I hope that’s true”. Unable to think of the perfect Christmas present for their son who can never leave the house, be exposed to any electricals, or even lift his head from underneath his copper shroud, they write him a heartfelt letter expressing their love and hope for him to get better. 

Neither William nor the film offer any concrete answers as to how electrosensitivity should be treated as a whole, but one gets the sense that for William, simply being heard might be enough. In this way, Electric Malady is an incredibly timely film about empathy, and the value of taking seriously another person’s lived experience.  

Electric Malady is in UK cinemas from 1st March