A visually brilliant adaptation of JG Ballard’s satire, Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s High-Rise seems strangely dated with its Seventies’ dystopian future.
Winter Of Discontentby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After Kill List, Sightseers and A Field In England, Ben Wheatley returns with his most explosive film to date – his take on JG Ballard’s dystopian futuristic fantasy, which has has been anxiously anticipated since its no-show at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. And its premise of the violently savage breakdown of civilisation among the social strata of a luxury high-rise tower block gives ample scope for his uniquely black comic vision.
Ballard’s novel was published in 1975, when high-rise blocks had yet to attract the cheap-concrete stigma and social condemnation that led to their demolition, and Wheatley has kept the Seventies setting – the premise of a community trapped and erupting in a sealed environment could only work in an era without access to the outside world though mobile phones or internet. The production design – lighting and colour palette – is authentically ’70s, as are the hairstyles, facial hair and flares. And set in a monolithically brutal tower block within a striking cityscape, High-Rise looks spectacular, with shot after beautifully framed shot, at times even visually referencing Kubrick’s seminal Seventies’ classic A Clockwork Orange.
Tom Hiddleston too is perfectly cast as the central character, neurologist Dr Robert Laing, a new arrival to the block. Initially urbane, he quickly catches the eye of his neighbour above – a flirtatious Sienna Miller. Residents’ social class or income is indicated by which floor they live on, with plebs and families on the lower floors, above them the rich and, at the top, society’s elite. But while Laing becomes literally upwardly mobile – from his 25th floor to the heights of the spectacular penthouse apartment when he’s invited to meet the block’s architect, the significantly named Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), his good manners and breeding are on the way down. For Royal, the block is a social experiment – a “crucible of change” – and he’s not interested in the human repercussions.
While on top of the building, Royal has a surreal lawned garden the size of a football pitch, where his wife (Keeley Hawes) amuses herself by riding a white horse, when the block’s services break down, the electricity fails and rubbish piles up, pugnacious documentary maker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans bursting with aggression) leads incursions from the lower to the upper floors and sparks a class war. In retaliation, the upper-floor residents who, dressed as aristocrats from the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, are partying with the same decadent lack of concern, descend to the lower floors to haul back alcoholic booty from the supermarket and fight back. There’s even an anarchic turf battle in the in-house swimming pool. But other than through fancy dress, the delineation of the classes isn’t clear and the crucial breakdown of society – or perhaps its middle classes – is muddled.
Despite the high production values, cinematic brilliance and assembled star power of the cast, the nonstop loud parties turning into orgies becomes repetitive and seems overlong. Though the film starts arrestingly with Laing barbecuing a dog on his balcony and is told in flashback, it feels as a result that anarchy breaks out too quickly, before the characters have been established. About as subtle as a cracked skull, Amy Jump’s script is heavy-handed, the meaning of the fable hammered home with a televised paean to capitalism by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher strangely tacked-on at the end. And unable to update Ballard’s dystopian novel with a contemporary meaning, the message of Wheatley’s film remains preserved in time. But visually dazzling and happily anarchic, High-Rise towers over all of Wheatley’s films to date.
High-Rise is released on 18th March 2016 in the UK