Last Friday saw the UK premiere of Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise. Having only read this 1975 novel recently, it was fresh in my mind as I made my way to the London Film Festival screening.
The story is set in a 40 storey high-rise building housing apartments, supermarket, bank, gym, restaurant, pool and school, seen as a new step forward for modern living in the 70s era in which it is set. A critique on Britain’s class society and our dependence of modern appliances, Ballard split the high-rise: the wealthiest in the top floors, then the middle class and the less well off (and it appears all those with children!) at the bottom. The question – what could happen if such different people were packed together in this way, all relying on the same amenities for day to day living?
For those familiar with the film’s source material, the good news is that the film very much conveys the surreal, dark, twisted, disorientating and moody atmosphere of the novel. Ben Wheatley’s directorial style captures the period setting superbly (as do the set designs) and you could almost think it was made in the 70s when watching it. Scenes of drug and alcohol-induced, hedonistic behavior, as characters look directly in to the camera, while seemingly going mad, unnerve and disorientate the audience as everyone begins to lose a grip on reality. As the film progresses, the inhabitants do indeed start to forget about the world outside its walls as tribal warfare escalates.
There are some fantastic shots of the building from various angles, emphasizing its imposing concrete structure, which give a disturbing, almost horror film feel to it, as the building conceals from the world the disturbing developments within its walls. This mood is also wonderfully enhanced by the film’s soundtrack, a combination of score by Clint Mansell and 1970s songs – most interestingly SOS by Abba, which is used in alternative styles as a perfect accompaniment to the unfolding events during different scenes (from grandly performed by violinists through to a more disturbing cover by Portishead).
Casting-wise, the ensemble is very good. At its heart is Tom Hiddleston as Dr. Laing. As a doctor, Laing carries an air of detachment about the world around him, which carries over to the world within the high-rise. He isn’t interested in the battle; he simply adapts and adjusts to a new lifestyle. Tom brings a great deal of charisma to the role. You like Laing (as much as you can like any of the characters in this story) and through him are able to experience all the various strata of society within the high-rise, as he interacts with those above and below his 25th floor home. His army of fans will certainly not be disappointed by the amount of nudity they get from him here (whether naked sunbathing or balcony sex scene, not to mention a great, dream-like dance sequence with him surrounded by Virgin Atlantic-esque flight attendants)!
The other key character is Wilder, a documentary maker at the bottom of the high-rise, determined to get to the top and confront the architect (aptly named Royal), on whom he has placed the blame for the building’s faults. Luke Evans plays the part well, however I found myself disliking him much more on screen than I did on the page. Perhaps this is because the book lets you see much more of the unsavoury behavior carried out by those higher up the block against Wilder’s group, making his struggle to fight back seem a natural response, which to a point is admirable (although his later actions, especially on film, take any sympathy I had for his fight away).
I was also disappointed that the disintegration of behaviour of the residents was not handled more gradually. In the book, it is a build-up of small acts of rebellion, which result in an inevitable war. You understand the rules in place: car parking spaces closest to the building for the top floors, special lifts for the higher floors etc. and so can see why those nearer the bottom would become frustrated, but also why perhaps those nearer the top could not adjust to sharing their amenities and lives with others they saw as lesser than themselves. The film rushes over this period of simmering tension, using a montage centring on Dr. Laing to fast forward through the growing tension and initial chaos, straight to the building of barricades in apartments, bringing us further down the line of the unravelling of the building’s society. For me, this causes the film to lose purpose and direction, as it’s suddenly muddled as to how people have gone from relatively respectable to primitives overnight, whereas the book made these events and behaviours seem to be an inevitable conclusion.
Also, as the film doesn’t convey the breakdown of the classes in the same way the book did, nor the restricted mobility around the building, Wilder’s struggle to climb to the top doesn’t seem quite as much of a necessary battle as it did on the page. Everyone is just charging around, causing destruction, seemingly indiscriminately. As a result Wilder comes across as more of a vigilante causing, and perhaps being the catalyst for, trouble, rather than reacting to circumstances around him.
There are some strong supporting performances. Elisabeth Moss (Wilder’s wife) is much more interesting in the film, in which she has more depth of character and a closer relationship with Laing (although her British accent is a bit ropey). Having her be pregnant too adds to her vulnerability in the ever growing hostile environment of the building. Sienna Miller brings the character of Laing’s neighbour Charlotte Melville to life very well and the fleshed out role of her son Toby (especially his relationship with Laing) is a lovely addition, which brings much needed lighter touches to the film.
The upper echelons highlight the stereotypical image of the quirky wealthy elite – enjoying extravagant costume balls and looking down on those literally below them. Keeley Hawes as Royal’s wife sums up their attitude, when commenting that the poor are always so obsessed with money! The addition here of a horse in the penthouse garden heightens the ridiculous excess they enjoy. Jeremy Irons is not what I’d pictured for the building’s architect Royal and for me he lacked some of the personality that comes across on the page.
There are some deviations from the novel which I felt worked and suited this different medium for the story. The wealthy resident who meets an unfortunate end has been replaced by an unpleasant rival colleague of Laing’s, which further ties him in to the events and allows Hiddleston to delve deeper in to the emotional psyche of his character. This is also aided by the removal from the story of Laing’s sister, a fellow resident lower down the building in the book, but who instead has recently died in the film, enhancing his seeming emotional detachment from the world. The lifestyle of the upper class residents is rather different on screen, portraying them as much more hedonistic, eccentric individuals – the cocktail party from the book is now a period costume regency ball, in which Laing finds himself completely out of place (looking instead as if auditioning for Bond – in black suit sipping champagne from a martini glass), while later they spend their time naked in a mass orgy for no apparent reason.
Written forty years ago, like Wheatley I’m amazed a film adaptation of High-Rise has not been made sooner. Despite the novel’s age, this film certainly feels quite topical, albeit in a darkly over the top way. At a time when a large part of society is very much of the view that it is “us vs. them” and with lines of division being drawn, which see people spitting on those belonging to a different political persuasion to themselves and a race for London’s mayoral candidate being spun as between the sone of a billionaire and a bus driver’s son, High-Rise seems as relevant now as it did during the pre-Thatcherite time in which it was written.
This film certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, due to its chaotic, violent, dismal and often slow pace and although the mood and tone of the original novel remains, it is a bit muddled in its execution. However, for fans of cult movies High-Rise certainly fits the bill, bringing a darkly warped, yet darkly funny vision of society to life on screen.
High-Rise will be released in the UK on 11 March 2016 (info via FilmFour twitter feed). In the meantime here’s the Q&A that followed last week’s BFI screening: https://youtu.be/bfdEnW85w78