When you study modern and post-modern fiction, you become aware of some incredibly out-there, transgressive books, and one author of such novels was J.G. Ballard. The English author is famous for uncomfortable, shocking stories in a near-real version of our world, and I’ve only ever read High-Rise of his many novels – so was excited to hear a film adaptation was coming. The film, like the book, really won’t appeal to a lot of people, but I was impressed, and director Ben Wheatley was a perfect match.
It’s 1970s Britain (or at least a parallel version), and surgeon Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into the first completed high-rise in a series of towers in London. Built and designed by architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), the tower features all the amenities required for its residents – shops, swimming pools etcetera – but operates on a class basis: the poorer are towards the bottom, and so on. Immediately, the place begins to slide into class war and anarchy, with film director Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) a key component of this, and Laing finds himself drawn in by the building’s noxious power over its hundreds of residents.
That synopsis doesn’t cover half of what occurs, and while there’s not much to spoil, some of the more disturbing elements are best left as a surprise. Suffice to say, Ballard had something to criticise in the way the UK was going at the time he wrote the book (the film’s use of a Margaret Thatcher interview hammers this home), and English director Wheatley wisely stages the film in its original period setting. He and writer Amy Jump (also both editing) have made some impressive UK movies in the last few years (Kill List and Sightseers just iso that I’ve seen), and the two seem to excel at getting under the skin of British people and exposing the horror and violence underneath. In that sense, High-Rise’s themes of class division, entitlement and humanity’s ability to quickly regress to animal behaviour is a perfect fit for them.
Adapting a book that’s mostly told in the third person must have been a challenge, but Jump and Wheatley expertly build the growing, oozing tension, which explodes at different points and highlights the very worst of humanity, and British psychology (in other words, our constant problem with class). This is assisted by cinematographer Laurie Rose’ excellent work on giving the film a shiny, 70s sheen of half-tacky chintz/half-glamour, which soon starts to crumble; and the remarkable sets, which again hark back perfectly to the period while also presenting the skyscraper’s cold, glassy and concrete bleakness. Some of the editing is excellent as well, particularly in its use of slow-motion in one horrific moment, and in displaying the monotony of daily life (before echoing it eerily later on).
When it comes to actors, Hiddleston is ostensibly the protagonist, but you soon realise this isn’t a film about a hero or a villain – it’s all about how people are, fundamentally, shit. So casting one of the best British actors at displaying such duality was a good start, with Hiddleston’s good looks and debonair behaviour belying the hidden, cold depths inside, and the actor perfectly portrays a growing loneliness and insanity pushing through. Evans’ Wilder is a furious beast of a man, all lust and violence, and I really enjoyed how the Welsh actor brings a mix of righteousness and macho bravado to the unpredictable character, while Irons is his usual, oily self as the building’s “mid-wife”, the man residing at the pinnacle of the tower and responsible for all that comes after.
There are a range of female characters in the film that give it an interesting twist, including Sienna Miller’s floozy Charlotte Melville and Elizabeth Moss’ mother Helen Wilder, and I found their depiction interesting in that despite being mothers of young children, they both give into the power of the building as well. Miller isn’t the greatest actress, but she has a few more involving scenes as a woman who loses her control over people and her place in the system, while Moss’ pregnant housewife – from the outset – seems slightly more sympathetic than most characters, though she also gets swept up in the madness. And Sienna Guillory and Keeley Hawes, as the resident “don’t you know who I am” celeb and Royal’s entitled wife respectively – are seething, snooty harpies whose paths through the story actually get subverted, and end at a point you don’t expect.
There’s a wide supporting cast, including Reece Shearsmith and James Purefoy, that you’ll know but you’re not sure where from, but who create and inhabit memorable characters to fill out the building’s many types – the film really gives us a sense of hundreds of people slowly turning to revolt as the rot sets in. Musically, Clint Mansell’s soundtrack bubbles underneath with menace, and some great ’70s covers – including a really disturbing Abba cover – help ground the film in its time. I would recommend those more sensitive to violence and gore stay away, as there’s some pretty squeamish scenes dotted throughout, but surprisingly (as in the book) it’s hardly mass death or violence – which makes it more shocking when it does occur.
I enjoyed High-Rise for being a great adaptation and for being an entertaining watch, but I’m fairly sure it’ll be an acquired taste!