Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise is too chaotic to truly capture JG Ballard’s icy vision of society collapsing
You have to give Ben Wheatley credit where it’s due; he lets his audience know within the first 90 seconds whether they’ll be able to stomach his latest film, an appropriately violent adaptation of JG Ballard’s High-Rise. Opening with a grisly corpse and some rather horrible animal violence, I noticed at least a handful of people squirming in their seats at the screening I attended, debating walking out. Certainly, they walked out a few minutes later when Dr. Robert Laing, played with a detached cool by Tom Hiddleston, demonstrates a spot of cranial surgery in gruesome detail. At times, High-Rise feels like Wheatley holding a middle finger up to the mainstream, inviting the majority in with promises of bloody thrills and shirtless Hiddleston, before subjecting them to the grimy macabre of his previous works (Kill List, A Field In England, Sightseers). The only problem is, this relentless antagonism doesn’t quite gel with Ballard’s retro-futuristic visions.
Robert Laing, often narrating in first person, has just moved in to the eponymous block of designer flats, finding himself located directly in the middle of the working class and the snobby businessman in the highest homes. Trying to fit in with everyone, including flirty single mother Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), brutish documentarian Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), and the architect of the building Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), Laing quickly finds himself caught in the middle of a class war, as fights break out in supermarkets, swimming pools are invaded with mobs of raucous children, and lots of bloody violence ensues. While Ballard’s novel had plenty of time to escalate proceedings, starting with out-of-order lifts and piles of rubbish, Wheatley’s two hour film feels much shorter and quicker, the whole of society collapsing in the blink of an eye.
Ben Wheatley is not the most obvious choice to adapt JG Ballard. The other famous Ballard adaptation, Crash, was brought to the screen by David Cronenberg, a slow, hypnotic director who allows his camera to simply watch all manner of human filth unfold before our horrified eyes. There are times, especially in the more civilised first half, where Wheatley tries to follow his hero Cronenberg, with a few arty shots and disciplined, lengthy camera moves, but unfortunately, it never quite convinces. The second half, mostly built of inhumane violence and primal scrapping, is much more up his street, Wheatley bringing out the murky lighting and handheld aesthetic of the superior Kill List.
If there’s one thing Wheatley does capture brilliantly, it’s the feel of time and place Ballard so wonderfully described in his novel. Set in the 70’s but designed to be timeless, High-Rise feels trapped in a time period of its own making, as the world around them ceases to matter and life in the high rise becomes life itself. The building itself looks like something people thirty years ago would consider futuristic, yet the neat little supermarket and stripped down gym appear sweetly retro. The measured camera movements and alien synth score are straight out of 70’s Italian giallo horror, yet later we get a modern electro cover of 70’s stalwarts ABBA (a quick google search reveals it’s by 90’s trip-hop group Portishead) before ending with hardcore punk. This is the timeless 70’s, few strong period details but enough hints throughout to suggest an endless decade of decadence and expensive thrills.
The cast of High-Rise all appear to be from different films, perhaps a deliberate attempt to capture the zoo-like feel of the book. As an adaptation, a few characters are pulled off convincingly. Tom Hiddleston is outstanding in the leading role of the observer of this microcosm, and while Laing is slightly less passive than in the book, it’s still surprising how unselfish Hiddleston is at allowing the supporting actors their chance in the spotlight. In the film’s best performance, Luke Evans captures the unintelligent fury of Richard Wilder, a man prone to using his fists more than his brain. Only slightly more evolved than a chimp (in the film’s funniest moment, he uses a series of grunts and growls as replies), Evans is genuinely scary in the role, unpredictable and physically imposing. Cronenberg favourite Jeremy Irons is very good in a far less physical role. Anthony Royal, holed up on the top floor, spends most of the time being mocked and slapped around by those around him, including wife Keeley Hawes (who feels far too over-the-top). Irons might not be going too far out of his comfort zone, but he’s nevertheless a solid supporting character.
Less successful are some of the broader actors. While it’s impressive that Wheatley continues to employ his regular collaborators as his work becomes more mainstream (Tony Way from Down Terrace, Neil Maskell from Kill List, Peter Ferdinando and Reece Shearsmith from A Field In England), few of them actually work in the film. Ferdinando, who really should be a much bigger name for his work in Hyena and Tony, is excellent as the smug newsreader Cosgrove, but Shearsmith plays another variation of creepy psychopath he regularly does, and Tony Way is mostly an irritating distraction. Sienna Miller is okay as Charlotte Melville, but her character feels short changed, mostly being there as a sex object to various men in the building. Perhaps worst of all, sadly, is Elizabeth Moss, who struggles with a British accent and doesn’t really seem to do much of anything in the film.
While Ben Wheatley’s refusal to compromise and dedication to ultraviolence should be lauded, I can’t help but feel like he was the wrong person to bring High-Rise to the big screen. JG Ballard needs a hypnotic, cool director, somebody like Cronenberg or David Fincher, a director with a cold approach to humanity. Wheatley is both too funny and too frantic to really capture the harsh world of High-Rise. His work with actors is predictably great, drawing funny, scary, intense performances from every cast members, but this is only effective in the over-the-top second half; the first half, satirical and biting and observant in the book, doesn’t really work here. Wheatley is too good a director to completely flub this, but while his High-Rise is darkly funny and wildly brutal, it feels all too flippant and throwaway. JG Ballard’s novel will remain fresh for a lifetime; Ben Wheatley’s film will be all but forgotten in a year’s time.
By Harry J. Ford
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