To say I had high expectations for this film would be an understatement. For one, JG Ballard is my favourite writer (my son is even named after him), and I was excited to discover it would be Ben Wheatley taking helm of the adaptation – with the biggest budget and most high profile star (Tom Hiddleston) of his career so far. Writer Amy Jump has also done an admirable job in adapting a book which is hard to imagine as a film. Like all of Ballard’s work, ‘High-Rise’ is intensely visual; but it has three protagonists, not much dialogue and it is difficult to understand the motivations of the characters without their “inner space” as Ballard called it.
It is really the high-rise building itself which is the central character in this film and it is divided into three sections. Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) is from the lowest levels, Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into the middle and Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) occupies the penthouse on the top floor. Architect, Anthony Royal surveys his creation from his God-like position, but unfortunately the children in his Garden of Eden have free-will and they will soon be violently exercising it.
Over the course of just three months, the delicately balanced social veneer of the residents disintegrates into total anarchy. Seemingly “normal” people quickly acquiesce to the new order. What starts off as teething problems of a new building settling (the odd power cut), quickly leads to disgruntled lower-level residents – chiefly, Wilder -attempting to rise up by literally ascending the high-rise, to confront Royal.
As mentioned earlier, Jump deserves so much of the credit for this successful adaptation of Ballard’s work. She gives Laing (Hiddleston) a voice-over (in which he refers to himself in the detached third-person) only at the start and end. The fact that he is so enigmatic may lead to the audience screaming “why are you putting up with this?! Just leave!” at the screen. The trick, as a viewer, is to give yourself up to the power of the high-rise and succumb to its temptations, just as the residents do.
Tom Hiddleston does seem incongruous in this film – in his smart grey suit, which would not look out of place on ‘The Night Manager’, and surrounded by comic character actors (highlights are Reece Shearsmith and Dan Skinner). However, this perfectly befits his blank-canvas everyman of a character. Laing desperately tries to paint his apartment in the same grey as his suit, so he can blend into the background and be an observer. He is the “lone island” that Wilder mistrusts. Laing is pulled in two directions during the film – down to his wild side (the lower storeys of Richard Wilder) or up to being a potential yuppie with Royal and his ridiculously aristocratic roof-top country garden.
The one aspect of this film (more so than barbecued dogs and de-gloved heads) that may sit uncomfortably with an audience is its treatment of women. They are abused horribly throughout, from Helen Wilder (Elisabeth Moss) being the archetypal Virgin Mary, to Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), cast as the “fallen woman”. Again, these can be seen as two aspects of Laing’s character, and he is torn between these two women as much as his wild and royal sides. However, there are hints towards the end that it is the women and children who may be the ultimate beneficiaries of the new order within the high-rise building, when they set up a commune on the upper floors. Melville’s son, Toby (Louis Suc) is a character expanded from the novel and his relationship with Laing really works. He becomes more mature and wise throughout, as the adults become more tribal and savage.
Although the film is a big leap in budget for Wheatley, it is still not a big budget by any means and the production design and costumes are impressive. It was a wise decision to set the film firmly within the seventies. The debauched decadence of the Studio 54 style parties juxtaposed with the power cuts and piles of rubbish sacks really works within this context.
Even if you know nothing of the novel, I still strongly recommend this film. It is blackly comic and shocking at times (as Wheatley fans will expect), but immerse yourself in the colours, the Abba-infused soundtrack and the total chaos as you witness adults consumed by their basest instincts. Give into this grown-up ‘Lord of the Flies’, where the wisest and sanest character is a child. Indulge in your deepest desires as you ascend the ‘High-Rise’.
Director: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans