D: Ben Wheatley. S: Amy Jump. Novel: J.G. Ballard. P: Jeremy Thomas. Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Reece Shearsmith. UK dist: StudioCanal.
Well, they finally did it: Ballard’s savage satire of upward mobility has made it to the big screen at last, after decades of abortive high-profile productions. Nicolas Roeg, Paul Mayersberg, even Bruce Robinson have tossed their hats into the ring, without success. With big-hitters like this apparently unable to crack the material, it’s perhaps surprising to find a relative newcomer (Doctor Who’s Ben Wheatley) first past the post – but film funding’s all about being in the right place at the right time. Wheatley and writer Amy Jump make a very creditable job of realising the Ballardian universe, capturing his sardonic humour almost to perfection – many of the best lines are straight from the book – and while they can’t quite match the apocalyptic resonance of the book’s final act, there’s a lot to admire in their adaptation. Roeg’s version might have been more enigmatic, Robinson’s more scabrous, but Wheatley’s is a coolly-stylish, often witty study of class warfarethat holds the attention, more or less, throughout its 2-hour running time. (Though losing ten minutes or so from the middle act wouldn’t have hurt. Just saying.)
The plot is brutally simple. Physiologist Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into his new apartment in a state-of-the-art London high-rise development, a self-contained miniature town with supermarket, leisure facilities and zoned residential quarters allocated according to social class: lower middle at the bottom, rising to the snooty upper echelons towards the top. The project has been designed by architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), who occupies the penthouse suite with his aloof entourage; his tower is the prototype for a new kind of living, a utopian vision or urban planning. But the cracks are already beginning to show: dissent among the lower floors is growing, as Royal’s strict rationing of the building’s power supply leads to frequent outages. Tempers fray. Firebrand Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a maker of TV documentaries, leads his fellow residents in vengeful sorties against the upper floors. Retaliatory raids from above soon follow. More intrigued than alarmed, Laing watches from the sidelines as the situation escalates out of control, and the simmering violence finally explodes…
Good as it is, High-Rise is slightly too controlled, too well-behaved, to be entirely satisfying. Despite admiring the performances, the brutalist décor and witty dialogue, you watch the film with the nagging feeling that something’s missing – namely, the deadpan poetry of Ballard’s prose – when the filmmaker ought to be supplying a cinematic style of his own to counter that absence. A visionary text demands a visionary director to do it justice, and for all his talent, I’m not sure Ben Wheatley is quite the right fit for Ballard. (I’m not sure ANY director is, to be honest – not even Cronenberg, who’s probably come the closest so far to capturing the Ballardian “feel”.) High-Rise is a rather conventional adaptation, one which sticks a bit too literally to the events of the book when the text may have benefited from a looser, more expressionistic touch; it would be interesting to see what Jonathan Glazer might have made of it, for instance. It’s not that the film lacks creative input, but the stylisations Wheatley has chosen seem slightly unfocused – the brief fantasy/dream interlude, for one, where we observe our hero cavorting with a band of supermodel-ish air hostesses. It seems to serve merely as a quick satirical jab at male attitudes to female sexuality, though what relevance that has to anything surrounding it is not immediately clear.
Likewise, the setting itself is a bit of a head-scratcher. The film unspools in a faux-Seventies “interzone”, whose period trappings (shag-pile carpets, flared pants and “Action” comics) are flatly contradicted by more contemporary musical choices (from the bleepy techno of supermart muzak to Portishead’s eerie, doom-laden cover of Abba’s “S.O.S” ). This mixture of old and new may owe something to the work of Derek Jarman (Caravaggio) – or, less flatteringly, Jake Scott’s Plunkett and Macleane – but it too-obviously flags the film as taking place in an Allegorical Landscape, rather than inside the real world of today. Ballard’s “High-Rise” is not a period piece, nor does its apocalyptic vision apply specifically and exclusively to the decade in which it was written: it’s a living, vital metaphor for the atavistic drives underpinning class divisions, as true now as it was in 1975. Yes, the power cuts and heaped-up rubbish will trigger flashes of recognition in viewers old enough to have experienced all that first time around – but the merry-go-round of history could bring it all back, sooner than we think. (And the past 40 years has done nothing to alter human nature: we may have better fashion sense, but our prehistoric hindbrains still call the shots.) So while High-Rise ticks many JGB boxes, it’s not quite the full-on trip into the heart of darkness it might have been. It’s still very much worth seeing, but Ballard fanatics may be left wanting more.