I can’t deny that I’ve been super bad this year at getting round to all of the films that I wanted to see. I had plans to watch Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel but, thanks to my flaky friends, I never managed to see it at the cinema. Then, because I continue to be useless at life, I have only just got round to it. Still, that’s something to celebrate, right? So I decided, in lieu of any current release to talk about today, I’d give my opinion of a film that almost convinced my that Tom Hiddleston could be an okay Bond. Although, I remain unconvinced and will forever dream of a world in which Idris Elba doesn’t feel too old to take the name over. However, there is no denying that Hiddleston absolutely dominates in this role. As he does in basically all of them at this point.
Still, High-Rise is about more than its lead actor and, thanks to director Ben Wheatley, the novel is as unsettling, dark and funny as it needed to be. There have been a great number of directors and screenwriters who have attempted to prepare the novel for the big screen treatment, starting with Nicolas Roeg way back the 70s. It may have taken 40 years to make it happen, the themes within Ballard’s novel are still incredibly relevant today. High-Rise came out the year that Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party, you know, before everything went to shit. Still, Ballard foresaw the UK’s bleak future and set his novel in a version of Britain where greed was taking over and the social tensions were reaching boiling point. Ben Wheatley and screenwriter, Amy Jump, make the decision to keep the action situated in the 1970s. This is more than a little disconcerting as we, in the present, are looking into a past that is looking into a future that has already happened. The costumes and set-dressing may seem kind of ridiculous but it provides the film with some fantastic visuals and gives the whole thing a more depressing air. The people in this film are dreaming of a bright future that we all know cannot happen.
Trying to escape his bitter past, Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is more than happy to throw himself into the world of the High-Rise. The all-purpose community built into a technologically advanced block of flats is the future for society all designed by the mysterious yet well-intentioned architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). He lives at the top of his own creation with his unsatisfied wife (Keeley Hawes). As the floors decrease so too does the social class of the inhabitants. Laing is on floor 25 and manages to find an in with both those below and above him. He makes quite an impression on his upstairs neighbour Charlotte (Sienna Miller) with whom he forms a romantic attachment and, for reasons unknown, he catches the attention of Royal himself. Although, Laing is more than comfortable with the lower levels and befriends Richard and Helen Wilder (Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss).
As it turns out, paradise isn’t quite as perfect as everyone expected and the sheer technological strain on the building proves to be too much. Blackouts occur regularly and the lower levels find themselves suffering more than the upper ones. Far from the unified building that Royal hoped for, this has created a deep tension bubbling under the surface waiting for the perfect time to erupt. And erupt it does. What begins as a seedy party full of alcohol, drugs and sex in the hallways quickly leads us into violence, sexual assault and all out class warfare. Wheatley is the perfect director to take on the task of portraying the buildings descent into chaos. There is an unnerving mix of beauty and degradation on display which shows the binary natures of the society that has emerged. You can genuinely feel the grubbiness that is overtaking the sleek design of Royal’s building. Despite the terrible things presented on screen the whole thing is very dreamlike because everything is presented in such a beautiful way. Wheatley is quite the artist.
Still, High-Rise won’t be for everyone. It features little, if any, exposition but throws you in at the deep end hoping you’ll catch up. In terms of creating the chaotic and disconcerting atmosphere that Wheatley craves it works wonderfully but for those relying on a deeply engaging narrative may find it lacking. It tells the story well enough but, in order to stay faithful to the spirit of Ballard’s style, it often makes the storytelling a little difficult. Rather than a coherent narrative you can expect an almost episodic structure of increasingly unpleasant moments. We all know where it’s heading, thanks to the opening scene set three months before the major action, but it’s hardly a straight path getting there. Which, if you as me, is perfectly fine. Yes, this film doesn’t have the traditional narrative structure some may desire but Wheatley manages to create such arresting and memorable snippets that it’s difficult not to feel engaged. In High-Rise we have, though not a traditional story driven thriller, is a dark, funny and thought-provoking drama that will give you all the chills as you realise how much we can still learn from it.