Life for the residents of a tower block begins to run out of control.
It has taken 40 years to bring J. G. Ballard’s supposedly ‘unfilmable’ dystopian tale of societal breakdown to the screen, and the reasons for that are perhaps laid out by Ben Wheatley’s well intentioned, but ultimately disappointing adaptation. The film is set almost entirely within a new high rise tower block in 1975, where a young doctor called Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) has moved from the centre of London, attracted by the lifestyle within this relatively isolated community. The block provides many of life’s necessary conveniences and modern technology for the time period, such as a supermarket, a swimming pool and high speed elevators. Alongside the copious parties at all levels and the seemingly easy going atmosphere amongst the residents, the reasons to ever leave the building beyond work seem to diminish, which creates a heightened sense of isolation from the outside world. This is where Wheatley’s film concentrates and the best thing I can say about ‘High-Rise’ is that it is never boring.
The film’s primary themes are around the sense of isolation from the outside world leading to unpredictable behaviour, ultimately leading to the breakdown of societal norms, but I don’t think Wheatley’s film effectively delivers on these themes. The escalation of the situation as shown in the opening scene feels rushed and unearned with little method in how the plot unfolds; everything just happens and it leaves you wildly indifferent to any of the extreme violence or societal breakdown. The narrative attempts to show the breakdown of society primarily through the gap between rich and poor, using the tower block as a microcosm of a bigger problem, but the portrayal of the clash between different class factions doesn’t feel well developed and the characters move to violence far too quickly for it to be believable. In interviews promoting ‘High-Rise’, Wheatley talks about the film and its themes being as relevant today as in the 70s, and I do think he really believes that, but his approach is too basic and lacks depth to explore these complex themes.
The setting to begin with feels too artificial and I don’t think Wheatley really gets at the satire prescient in Ballard’s novel. He plays it too naturally and real and that only serves to highlight the flaws in the film’s make up, namely that the tower block setting doesn’t feel real and Wheatley wants to have things both ways. He wants to play up the dystopian satire whilst at the same time making ‘High-Rise’ feel like a valuable slice of potential real life and this approach doesn’t work. In the end this leaves us with a film comprised of moments of individual brilliance, but a whole movie that feels disjointed and unclear in how to tell its story. Some of the film’s best moments surround the terrific score from Clint Mansell and the soundtrack which features a haunting cover of Abba’s ‘SOS‘ (well two covers actually, if we’re including the instrumental version early on) from Portishead.
Characterisation is a further issue with the film, namely that there are too many characters to focus on with the end result that we don’t really care about any of them. I’m still unconvinced by Tom Hiddleston’s ability to lead a film as his often cold and distant persona masks the charisma he’s shown in his best role as Loki in the Marvel films, whilst the likes of Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller and Elisabeth Moss play relatively one note characters. The exception is the terrific Luke Evans, who snarls his way through the film as a documentarian becoming increasingly frustrated with his life in the high-rise, and who becomes the main trigger for all hell breaking loose.
I’m yet to be convinced by Ben Wheatley as a director. His work is always interesting and he has a flair for visuals that help to elevate his material, but beyond ‘Sightseers’ I’ve been left underwhelmed by all of his work. ‘High-Rise’ falls into that category, as Wheatley once again concentrates too much attention on the mechanics of filmmaking at the expense of the story itself. ‘High-Rise’, like much of his work, has a lot going for it but it could and should have been much better.
Directed By: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Peter Ferdinando, Reece Shearsmith, Sienna Guillory, Dan Renton Skinner, Augustis Prew, Stacy Martin and Tony Way