Apparently Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise polarised viewers when it was shown at a couple of film festivals at the back end of 2015, and that appears to be the case with regard to its recent general release in the UK too; going by the usual places – Twitter and Facebook feeds, blogs, podcasts, comments sections here, there and everywhere – it would seem that people either love it or hate it, with suspiciously few bothering to deem it as ‘just OK’. That’s usually the sign of an interesting film, at the very least, and Wheatley and regular screenwriter Amy Jump have duly obliged, offering up a blackly-comic drama that incorporates some excellent production design and many of Ballard’s arch ideologies, but which sadly falters during a messy, overlong final act. It hasn’t really surprised me that the film has received some puzzled, negative notices in other countries, either; its depiction of certain strata of British society is subtle, and I wonder whether those less familiar with differences used to define sub-sections within the British class system will get it.
Most of the story is set within a tower block on the outskirts of an unnamed city (possibly London). Our way in is provided by new resident Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a neurologist who takes a flat on the 25th floor. The position of this particular floor – about halfway up the building – is reflective of Laing’s middle class social standing: he is looked down upon by those at the very top the tower, a bunch of aspirational upper-middle class toffs presided over by Jeremy Irons’ architect Anthony Royal, while Laing remains polite to but coolly distant from his lower-middle class neighbours down near the ground floor, who include among their number an alpha-male documentary maker named Wilder (Luke Evans) and his pregnant, long-suffering wife, played by Elisabeth Moss. A sultry woman named Charlotte Melville – played convincingly by Sienna Miller – lives on the floor above Laing with her young son, and takes an immediate fancy to the doctor, while Jump’s screenplay also makes space for several other characters from Ballard’s book; these are mostly grotesque cariacatures, with just a few standing out in the film, such as Keeley Hawes’ bored trophy wife, Reece Shearsmith’s fusspot and Dan Renton Skinner’s gruff bodyguard-come-dogsbody.
Clearly the most striking character in High-Rise, however, is the high rise itself, with its interior appearance changing as the society within it changes, collapsing into anarchic chaos and a class war that only seems to involve social climbers. The story takes place in the mid-1970s – the period is more specifically-defined in the film than in the book – and the block is typical of those built in London at the time; Londoners, or those familiar with the city’s architecture, might see it as a cross between brutalist buildings like the Barbican and the Trellick Tower, though some location shooting actually took place in the town of Rhyl, North Wales. The interior sets are exquisite to look at, with production design by Mark Tildesley, art direction by Nigel Pollock and Frank Walsh, and set decoration by Paki Smith; they, and those working beneath them, have done a terrific job, and each apartment we see in the film accurately reflects the personality of its owner: Charlotte’s is party central / a crash pad, with empty glasses and bottles stacking up around passed-out bodies; the Wilder flat reflects Mrs Wilder’s burgeoning interest in green issues; the Royal’s penthouse suite is full of thick, white shagpile carpets and gold-plated garishness; Laing’s is left undecorated for a long time, reflecting the doctor’s own lack of commitment to the space, the building more generally and all the people within it. The communal areas we see are just as interesting and each is used to help the story along: gyms and squash courts are places in which men try to impress or dominate each other and establish a hierarchy; the swimming pool turns from a focal point for communal fun into a key battleground; the supermarket, with its rows of generic brand items and (later) its dwindling supplies, becomes similarly hotly-contested. What Jump has done very well is to capture Ballard’s central theme of human greed fucking everything up, and we see this largely through the way the shared areas change; initially all the characters have access to all of these rooms and facilities, regardless of the floor they live on, and at this point in the story they are able to co-exist successfully before greed and/or a desire for exclusivity and control begin to take over. It’s astute political commentary, albeit not exactly subtle, while the fate of the building in High-Rise is representative of many similar British inner-city tower blocks during that era, many of which once offered a promising new beginning for residents. The film also nods to the malfunctioning British infrastructure of the 1970s too, with strikes causing rubbish pile-ups as well as the Three Day Week and ongoing power cuts. Royal’s building is new, but nothing seems to work correctly, and the electricity always seems to be off at night.
Given such a wonderful milieu, it’s disappointing that High-Rise feels like a missed opportunity, a much softer and more playful film (at a crucial point in the story) than it perhaps ought to have been. It is often dark, but it isn’t dark enough, despite all these characters going to great lengths to preserve their own self-interest and to establish superiority or even equal footing with their various nemeses within the building. Wheatley, a director who has made his name with a series of unsettling, gory and violent black comedies, seems to tone down his usual brand of horror here, save for one or two bravura moments – Hiddleston peeling the skin off a demonstration skull in a lab will have squeamish viewers hiding behind their hands, for example – while the violence can always be predicted here. When life in the tower descends into debauchery and bloodshed the debauchery certainly makes for decent jokes – particularly Mrs Royal riding a horse through her apartment during a party before making an amusing request of her male guests – yet the threat of severe spontaneous violence never feels strong enough. (This despite several factors, such as Luke Evans’ wonderful performance as an unhinged psycopath who is permanently covered in his own blood and the blood of others, or the image of a man with a TV smashed over his head, and so on.) Still, that’s not to say the violence here doesn’t work at all; in fact many of the film’s more striking and memorable images arrive as society falls within the building and the characters take on more primal urges, like a frenzied attack that’s witnessed through a kaleidoscope, or a falling body that smashes into a car on the ground, for example. I just can’t shake the feeling that there was an opportunity here to hit the same disturbing levels of A Clockwork Orange, or even American Psycho, and it hasn’t been taken.
That all said, I can’t deny the film isn’t interesting, in terms of its premise, its look, and even the way it has been executed, flawed though it may be. It’s often very amusing, too, although I think Jump and Wheatley are better when they let real weirdness envelop their films, and that doesn’t happen enough here; by the end I felt like it had been too camp for too long. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a glorious failure, as I don’t think of it as a failure at all, but would just reiterate that there’s too much going on in terms of the sheer number of secondary characters, and the final act feels stretched, with two or three montages too many. In terms of the casting, Hiddleston is the perfect choice for the passive Laing, while Miller moves comfortably between the archetypes of louche temptress and caring single mother. Moss – who I will watch in anything – continues her recent excellent run, and as mentioned above Evans is a commanding presence; his character repulses and fascinates in equal measure, even if Wilder’s own fate never feels crucial enough. Still, the film is much more lively when he’s on screen and Evans is overacting. Yet, rather than the performances, I imagine High-Rise will probably be remembered in future for its production design, which is no bad thing in itself. In that respect, at least, the film excels. It is a lot of fun, and I’m glad it has put so many noses out of joint: it’s unusual, and lots of people react negatively to films that are different to the norm (myself included sometimes).
Directed by: Ben Wheatley.
Written by: Amy Jump. Based on High-Rise by J.G. Ballard.
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, Jeremy Irons, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Peter Ferdinando, Reece Shearsmith, Dan Renton Skinner, Augustus Prew.
Cinematography: Laurie Rose.
Editing: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley.
Music: Clint Mansell, Various.
Running Time: 119 minutes.