Director: Ben Wheatley
Major Players: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller
Out Of Five: 2.5
Sometimes there’s a reason why a book is regarded as unfilmable. Plenty of titles have been labelled as such – and then along comes somebody who disagrees. Some are visionaries, some just foolhardy. J G Ballard’s horror satire combo, High-Rise, was given this label and the director who said otherwise was Ben Wheatley, often touted as one of the big British directors of the future. If only he’d listened ……
The high rise of the title is a brutish concrete tower block on a new development in the late 60s. Its architect, Royal (Jeremy Irons) describes the five towers on the new estate as resembling a large, cupped hand, with each tower resembling a digit. The top floors on the first one overhang, defying gravity, and the occupants are allocated apartments according to their social status. The higher you are, the wealthier and more important. Royal, naturally, lives in the penthouse, throwing increasingly extravagant parties. But the building doesn’t deliver on its promise: the power fails and eventually chaos ensues, fuelled by copious quantities of drink and drugs.
We get a glimpse of what we’re in for right at the start, with Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) alone in his flat – just below the penthouse, don’t you know – with boxes and bags of rubbish piled high. His originally pristine yet sterile home with its stainless steel appliances and cold, functional concrete walls is barely recognisable, a dim-but-not-that-distant memory. The dog sharing his space doesn’t last very long: a hind leg ends up being roasted on a makeshift spit. And then we find out what’s happened in the space of just three weeks.
Published in 1975, the same year that Margaret Thatcher became the leader of the Conservative Party, the book is a 60s-set prophesy of the ultimate outcome of policies of the Thatcher government, which came to power in only four years later. And the film follows suit, emphasising its target with a recording of one of her early speeches towards the end. Essentially what we’re being shown is the breakdown of society – in the days before there was “no such thing” – navigated by Hiddleston.
The film impresses on certain levels. With its references to other films – Hiddleston in the mirrored lift recalls Orson Welles’ Lady From Shanghai – and portrayal of the tower block at its best and worst, it boasts some good camera work. And that’s married with a masterclass on the use of music, either to reinforce a scene or simply create one, unexpected as it is. I can’t think of any other film with a score that marries Radio Four’s old faithful, Sailing By, with Portishead singing Abba’s SOS. It’s almost like soundtrack for a party marking end of the world – sorry, society.
But the rest of the film is much less than satisfying. Once the social structure has broken down, it all becomes a filthy, drunken, rutting mess. And, while that descent doesn’t take long to make its point, it’s laboured over and over again, growing increasingly grotesque and, ultimately, tiresome.
High-Rise has split critics down the middle. Some say it’s a brilliant satire, others that it’s a complete misfire. I get the satire, but I’m in the naysayer’s camp. Despite its visual appeal, it becomes boring, with just one hideous brawling party after another.
It’s probably more coincidental than deliberate, but there are definite connections between the films at this year’s LFF. On the same day I saw High-Rise, I also watched Trumbo. On a couple of occasions, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) looked at a weighty tome of a script and commented that there was a good idea hidden in there somewhere. Pity he didn’t get his hands on High-Rise.
High-Rise was shown at the London Film Festival on 9 and 11 October and is released around the UK on 11 March 2016. It’s also reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 15 October.