Director Ben Wheatley has a big reputation but I’ve never warmed to his work; however this adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel is quite brilliant. I am a fan of Ballard, though I did most of my reading of him during my teenage years. At that time even though I found it difficult to make sense of, what has come to be known as the Ballardian, the strangeness of his worlds obviously attracted me. I read High-Rise recently and, as far as I can remember, the film makes the themes of the book more obvious. It may be the nature of the filmic image that necessitates pulling what’s on the novel’s page more into focus. This could also be a consequence of Amy Jump’s adept adaptation. If this sounds like I’m playing the book against the film then that’s not the intention; the film is a great interpretation of the book.
Central to the film’s success is setting it in the time in which it was written. The high-rise flat itself, in Ballard’s particular design, did not exist in the ’70s however it was typical of his novels to take familiar bourgeois tropes and intensify them to show their destructive nature. Mark Tildesley’s production design ensures the mise en scene reeks of the decade, as does the costume design, replete with killer sideburns; the latter most befitting Luke Evans’ character, Wilder.
Ballard’s names are melodramatic. Wilder is, as his name suggests, a wild card that rails against restraint, not for political reasons but for the macho fun of it. Tom Hiddleston’s protagonist is Robert Laing, which references psychiatrist R.D. Laing who gained some fame in the 1960s with his suggestion that the (bourgoise) nuclear family created mental illness. The film’s Laing is a physiologist but the parallel is clear. Jeremy Irons plays the high-rise’s architect and lives on the top floor: he’s named Royal. His swept back, greying hair, and hobbling gait (except when he plays squash) give him the ghoulish look of Boris Karloff; a suitable monster to oversee the descent into chaos the building causes. It was during the 1960s that the failure of high-rise flats, as a cheap form of accommodation for the working classes, became apparent: they were soulless, lacking in community and often unsafe. Ballard’s high-rise, however, is home to the bourgeoisie: on the upper floors the posh reside (Laing attends a fancy dress party where everyone, except him, is dressed as 18th century aristocrats); lower down the aspiring middle classes try to buy their way into perceived sophistication through consumer culture.
Laurie Rose, Wheatley’s regular cinematographer, gives the film’s colour palette the look of a polaroid photograph (a ‘must-have’ gadget of the time) its shot in impressive 2.39:1 widescreen. The roving steadicam (not of its time) is reminiscent of Kubrick’s pioneering work in The Shining (UK-US, 1980) adding to the surreal spookiness of the atmosphere.
It’s an excellent cast also including Sienna Miller, Elizabeth Moss and Keeley Hawes. The women are somewhat marginalised; but that was the ’70s. I particularly liked the line, delivered by Moss when she’s having sex with Laing, that he is a good utility; not sure that was in the original but well done to Jump to putting it in. Miller’s very good at conveying the slightly vacant beauty that the patriarchal 1960s expected of its attractive women.
I’ve mentioned that the film’s relatively straightforward to follow but there are some fabulous montages of the decadent chaos the high-rise descends into. I liked the final touch where we hear Margaret Thatcher espousing that only with private sector capitalism can we have true freedom. She probably believed it but Ballard didn’t.
A final plaudit must go to producer Jeremy Thomas, who was also responsible for Crash (Canada-UK, 1996), the only other film that has managed to come close to staging Ballard’s SF brilliance.