Dir. Ben Wheatley. UK, 2015. 112mins
Entering JG Ballard’s High-Rise carries an apartment block’s worth of expectations for young British director Ben Wheatley, even with Crash producer Jeremy Thomas’s seal of approval. Working with writer (and co-editor) Amy Jump again, Wheatley wades into the prescient 1975 text, delivering a complex, fluid interpretation which is respectful and almost-faithful while still being its own beautiful, crazed beast.
Wheatley’s subversive skills gel well with an author who still feels radical today, and perhaps always will.
Although it’s wild and fearless, High-Rise is no queasily chilly Crash. (Wheatley and Jump back away from the novel’s incestuous element, yet add in a more-disturbing pregnancy.) In Tom Hiddleston, the director has found an actor who can deliver the central character’s essential distance with the right mix of sympathy, intelligence and raw carnality. The film sings, and, frequently, dances; it feels alive.
The intimidating challenge in adapting High-Rise was to make a movie that exists by itself, independent of the text, and not to fall into Ballard’s aesthetic traps – either fetishising the block in which a no-holds-barred class war takes place between the upper echelons of society, or entering into Ken Russell 70s key-party territory. Wheatley is clearly not easily intimidated.
The director has made the interesting move of world premiering High-Rise in the Toronto Film Festival’s inaugural Platform competition, after which it will travel to San Sebastian and London at the start of what stands to be a long and healthy art house life. High Rise is unusual, and, despite the visual sheen, grubby enough to retain the director’s Sightseers fan base while reaching out to new, mainly young audiences looking for a no-holds-barred ride. Ballard fans should be satisfied; newcomers could find it difficult. Clearly working with more funds than ever before, Wheatley’s subversive skills gel well with an author who still feels radical today, and perhaps always will.
Ballard said that his experiences as a teenager in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp – chronicled in Empire of the Sun – were a brutal lesson on how quickly society’s thin veneers could melt in the heat. High Rise was his response to the rash of post-war urban planning which delivered brutalist towerblocks as architectural social engineering and it is assumed that the block’s creator Royal, played by Jeremy Irons, was based on Le Corbusier and his followers. (The book was written prior to Thatcher’s ascent to power, so her voice as an epilogue is the film’s one political duff note).
And how society melts in High-Rise. When the single, highly-eligible young Dr Laing moves into his small apartment (inconveniently bi-sected by pillars to serve architectural aesthetics), it’s clear that the block is already seething with petty arguments, parties, alcohol and sex. His upstairs neighbour, attractive single mother Charlotte (Sienna Miller), is slutty and knowing, while documentary film-maker Wilder (Luke Evans), is a sexual predator married to the pregnant Helen (Elizabeth Moss) and resentfully living on the lower floors with their children.
There’s a social pecking order in the High Rise; at the bottom, the middle classes (signified by flight attendants in a fabulous dance montage) and families; in the middle, upper-middle-class Laing and his orthodontist neighbour (Reece Shearsmith); at the top, in the penthouse, Royal and his rude, aristocratic wife Anne (Keeley Hawes), who rides horses in their rooftop garden and organises masquerades. Also in the upper levels are faded actress Jane (Sienna Guillory) and the trouble-making “cold-handed” gynaecologist Pangbourne (James Purefoy).
It doesn’t take long for Laing to join the parties which are swinging throughout the block, although this protagonist always holds something of himself back. He stops going to work (where he dissects a human head in an amusing David Cronenberg tribute; Ballard studied medicine but never practised). An electricity outage and a raid by the lower floors on the 10th floor swimming pool which has been closed for a private party is the key for the seething frustrations to bubble over in an orgy of sex, murder, and streams of filthy rubbish. Not to mention dance.
Wheatley’s film has a lively rhythm, a highlight of which is Portishead’s version of the ABBA song S.O.S. In a money shot, a man sails off the roof, but the block is not stunned into submission, and the parties just ratchet up a level. Royal sends the police away so the petty wars can continue: “There’s nothing here that can’t be swept under the rug.”.
All this has been signalled, however, by a prologue in which Laing sits on his devastated balcony, calmly grilling an Alsation.
The aesthetics of the piece are more than a footnote, but, thankfully, Ben Wheatley does not let them dominate his High Rise. He roots the film firmly and jubilantly in the mid-70s, but keeps the costumes and the interior sets as a flavour to relish. Accomplished production designer Mark Tildesley (most recently seen at the Olympics opening ceremony) found the brutalist Bangor Leisure Centre in Northern Ireland to be his London tower block, and it is, of course, a central character in the events that take place, a magnet for the action.
Wheatley’s regular DoP Laurie Rose grows into the bigger budget, and still manages to have fun with nostalgic touches like a kaleidescope shot, a throwback to the director’s earlier work..
High-Rise may have its stumbling blocks, and it certainly isn’t perfect, but that’s always going to be the case with a film which forces you on board for a wild and messy ride. ‘Ballardian’ entered the dictionary some time ago as a by-word for “dystopian modernity” - usually blended with eroticism and death. That, 40 years and countless dystopias later, Ben Wheatley can still make his work look modern and edgy in times when we think we’ve seen it all is indeed a feat to be celebrated.
Production company: Recorded Picture Company
International sales: HanWay Films, email@example.com
Producer: Jeremy Thomas
Screenplay: Amy Jump, based on the novel by JG Ballard
Cinematography: Laurie Rose
Production designer: Mark Tildesley
Composer: Clint Mansell
Editors: Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley
Main cast: Tom Hiddleston Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes