J.G. Ballard was the greatest post-war author Britain has ever known and his relationship to cinema is a curious one. The first cinematic adaptation of his work was Empire of the Sun by Steven Spielberg which remains Spielberg’s crowning achievement but one of his least successful films. The 2nd was Cronenberg’s Crash which relocates the Shepperton set dystopia to the US which Ballard actually suggested. The latest is High-Rise by Ben Wheatley and like all previous adaptations of Ballard’s work it’s directed by a genre filmmaker first and foremost.
High-Rise is set as the title may suggest in a high-rise tower block. Unlike Crash it’s set very deliberately in the time the book was written the mid ’70s. This is the eve of Thatcher being elected as the leader of the Tories and the film actually ends with a Thatcher soundbite to suggest this is only the beginning of the consumerist mayhem that will happen in the ’80s. Tom Hiddleston stars as Dr. Robert Lang who has went through some personal turmoil and decides to move into this high-rise.
The high-rise is an obvious metaphor for the British class struggle, a topic Ballard often wrote about in his disguised way of writing within the genre of science fiction. The high-rise is a hierarchy where the rich are at the very top like the architect played by Jeremy Irons and the poorest are at the bottom. Lang is firmly upper middle class because he resides on the 25th floor and a doctor. Interestingly like the source novel there is no working class, a BBC documentary filmmakers is at the bottom. The whole high-rise soon falls into total anarchy which the upper floors look down on the lower floors and the residents want to have the same rights as the controllers on top.
Ballard however was never interested in outer space even though he did write a hand of hard sci-fi shorts early in his career. Ballard was always interested in inner space, so the characters are always psychologically damaged in some way or during the course of the narrative, they become increasingly damaged both mentally and physically. Ballard also studied to be a psychiatrist so often the characters in his stories are doctors of some sort.
Wheatley being a fan of science fiction film and literature was interested in doing a film of High Rise so he hunted down the rights and in turn Jeremy Thomas who owned them (he also produced Crash). Thomas tried to make it back in the ’70s with Nicolas Roeg directing who in turn is one of Wheatley’s key cinematic influences in his varied body of work. Thomas is one of the few producers who has no concern about the money necessarily; he always picks his projects on the simple fact if he likes it.
It was made on relatively low-budget but compared to Wheatley’s other films it’s a big step up in production costs. They built very few sets for the film and often to cut costs they redecorated the sets to double as another room. The film has a decidedly retro feel with matte paintings or CGI (I’m not quite sure) to make the high-rise come to life. The costume design is equally very ’70s but also just one step ahead in the future so it becomes timeless, it might also have to do with the fact ’70s fashion always comes back for whatever reason.
The last half of the film becomes this spectacular orgy of sex and violence which becomes almost hallucinatory especially when the chaos is seen though the eyes of Charlotte (Sienna Miller) son’s kaleidoscope. Laurie Rose who has shot all of Wheatley’s films really pulls out all the stops here with swirling camera movements but without becoming head inducing which is a real skill. Given the ’70s dour world it habits it’s mostly a colour palette of browns and greys. Hiddleston even paints his room a silvery grey and he gets covered in the paint and because of the chaos he just leaves it.
The casting is really impeccable Hiddleston as everyone knows is one of this fascinating bunch of British actors cropping up who all have a wide range from Tom Hardy to Benedict Cumberbatch. Jeremy Irons is of course one of the premiere actors since the ’80s and it’s enjoyable to watch sink his teeth in his first meaty role in a long time. Sienna Miller is completely unrecognisable as Charlotte and seems to have recently be able to shred her tabloid fame and prove she is damn fine actress. Luke Evans adds some physicality to his role as Richard Wilder who is trying to make a documentary to expose the chaos going on. The only slight weak-link is Elizabeth Moss who does an ok English accent if not completely convincing.
I’ve been intrigued by Wheatley’s previous films and quite liked A Field in England but they didn’t always work for me but High-Rise blew me away. Everything from the ABBA covers to the sound design by Martin Pervey to the scope Wheatley has been able to depict on a minimal budget. Clint Mansell’s score gives the proceedings an eerie feeling and is quite possibly his best work to date. Wheatley from now has crowned himself as one of the few truly visionary directors in the British film industry. I doubt I will see such a crazed film in a long time and any film which ends with Industrial Estate by The Fall is a winner. I will be shocked if I see a better film all year and I just wish more filmmakers were this audacious and the fact it’s a Brit is so refreshing because the British film industry is so safe.