Development Hell: High-Rise Reviewed

John Grindrod surveys Ben Wheatley's adaptation of JG Ballard's classic dystopian novel

In Britain we’ve become used to seeing modernist buildings from the sixties and seventies left neglected, receiving unsympathetic makeovers, or being demolished altogether. Think of the tarting up of Park Hill in Sheffield, the social cleansing of Balfron Tower in East London, or the long, slow demise of its neighbour, the doomed Robin Hood Gardens. Ben Wheatley’s new film High-Rise manages to make all sorts of unsympathetic additions to J G. Ballard’s completely fictional seventies building, while also leaving the edifice teetering on the edge of collapse.

High-Rise and Ballard’s two associated novels, Crash and Concrete Island, were bleak explorations of a dehumanizing modern world we’d built following the Second World War. Crash was the first and most extreme: a disturbing horror imagining the sexual fetishisation of car crashes. Concrete Island maroons its anti-hero on the central reservation of an urban motorway. And then there’s High-Rise: a tale of civilization breaking down under the new technology of a tower block, a brutalist Lord Of The Flies. Affluent residents of a luxury apartment complex consciously turn their back on the world outside. Petty complaints and rivalries grow into cruelty and violence, and they embrace the growing amoral chaos they have created. Trapped in a claustrophobic environment, every available option is played out before us like an infinitely debased version of Groundhog Day. It was very much a novel of the 1970s, with the savagery Ballard’s generation had seen during the war transposed onto the unsuspecting, affluent young.

Ballard is not easy to film. It takes the genius of a Cronenberg (director of Crash), or the budget of a Spielberg (who made Empire Of The Sun) to successfully realise his dark, disturbing visions. To make a good film of High-Rise would require bravery. The structure – one long slow descent from civilisation into murderous chaos – requires some clever scaffolding and rebuilding to keep it dynamically interesting on the screen. After all, much of the dramatic tension of the novel comes not from the plot, but the cool, analytical commentary of Ballard’s writing. Wheatley’s film lacks a similarly incisive voice. The changes made in this adaptation have either been too small (tweaking minor plot and character points) or too superficial (leading to a fluctuation in tone throughout).

The idea to film High-Rise as a 1970s period piece does feel like the right decision. After all, it’s a story set at that moment when luxury tower blocks, like those at the Barbican, were new. We follow the aspirations of its residents, the grudges of class, and the freedoms of newly found sexual liberation. The period also helps us feel alienated from the action, a world both familiar and strange to us now. Period details are lovingly applied. In one of the most spectacular moments of the film, a Triumph Herald explodes in slo-mo, in a car park of orange, brown and olive motors. There are the bold patterns of mid-seventies décor to admire too. And the hair, the lip-gloss, the sideburns, the suits, the heels. But Wheatley’s fascination with this lurid period also brings with it the dangers of cartoonish excess. It’s as if the velvet winged collar blazers, the facial hair, the bouffants help push some performances towards parody. And it is here that a tonal problem emerges.

Tom Hiddleston and Sienna Miller play their central roles with intent to serve the seriousness of the story. Yet, around the edges, as in the tower, chaos reigns. Seemingly infected by their larger than life outfits, Augustus Prew must have hurt his teeth chewing all that concrete scenery, and James Purefoy goes at it like he’s in a Harry Enfield sketch. The uncertain fate of Elisabeth Moss as heavily pregnant Helen Wilder, for example, should make the audience feel much more sympathetic and uncomfortable than it does. Instead her kidnapping seems ridiculous, more like the antics of a sitcom neighbour in peril than a symbol of new life in the balance. These jolts of tone aren’t really down to the actors. Rather, it’s an unevenness of script and direction that allows for these awkward moments of excess.

All of which reminds me rather of a 1987 Doctor Who story based on High-Rise, called Paradise Towers. This production featured a cast of sitcom actors camping it up to very poor effect, led by a zombie Richard Briers. In the new film, Wheatley’s love of comedy actors makes itself felt too, with Julia Deakin, Reece Shearsmith and Dan Renton Skinner all cropping up. And, at times, the film tips over the edge into parody, much as the Doctor Who version did.

Having said that, Hiddleston is perfect as Laing, one of Ballard’s dessicated, blank anti-heroes, the control freak professional pushing his boundaries in a lawless, morality-free zone. Sienna Miller is wonderfully nuanced too as secretive, complex Charlotte Melville, a mother attempting to find safety in a building increasingly occupied by psychopaths and beasts. And then there is Luke Evans, who plays the tower’s primal force Richard Wilder. You never doubt that here is a man capable of monstrous acts. His and Miller’s extraordinary performances remain with you long after the movie is over.

Yet, they cannot save the film. The cold, shocking detachment of the novel has been replaced by crude humour, one that mistakes clunking class comedy for daring and insight. And an unwillingness to address the novel’s structural issues means the film ends up one long underwhelming series of predictable repetitions. Without Ballard’s cold, insightful commentary we’re left with an indistinguishable parade of excess, one that makes its point exhaustively a good hour before the credits roll. In many ways this is a classic Brit flick, one that lacks the guts to take its source material, or the issues it raises, seriously.

I so wanted to love this film. I didn’t care if it was different from the novel, in fact I would have preferred it if it was. Instead what we have is a pastiche. Mock-modernism. Another brash and wrongheaded attempt to re-fashion a seventies icon. Gone, as with most of these refurbishments, are the bold intellectual and social intentions of the work. Instead, in the reductive desire to create a few dazzling flashes of cool and gross-out moments of joke horror, the heart and soul have been ripped from the structure.

High-Rise is out in cinemas now

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