Modern, edgy and deliciously dark, Ben Wheatley meets JG Ballard head-on in this savage and utterly brilliant adaption
As a fan of JG Ballard’s classic novel, I had high expectations for Ben Wheatley’s highly-anticipated adaptation of HIGH-RISE. Ballard’s cautionary tale of dystopia and societal collapse has taken nearly 40 years to make it to big screen. Thankfully, it was worth the wait.
Set in 1975, HIGH-RISE tells the story of Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a young physiologist who moves into a brand-new luxurious yet isolated high-rise apartment block only to find the building is beset by a dangerous class divide, descending into orgiastic chaos.
The film opens with Laing sat on his balcony eating a barbecued dog, reflecting on the unusual events that took place during the previous three months. When Laing moves into the building, the block is already seething with petty arguments, parties, alcohol and sex. A social pecking order is also in play. The middle classes live in the lower floors; the upper-class, like Laing, live in the middle; the super-rich like architect Anthony Royal and his aristocratic wife Anne (Keeley Hawes), live in the penthouse. Life is idyllic until the power structure starts to shift and seething frustrations start to bubble over.
As power outages become more frequent and building flaws start to emerge, particularly on the lower floors, the regimented social strata of the building begins to crumble. Pretty soon, the lower residents begin to climb the High Rise, all hell breaks loose. Forced social order dissolves into chaos and debauchery and the different floors group themselves into violent tribes. A savage, dystopian society brews and Laing is swept up in the madness.
Modern, edgy and deliciously dark, director Ben Wheatley meets JG Ballard head-on in this savage and utterly brilliant adaption. Like the novel, the film moves at a dream-like pace with Wheatley’s complex and fluid interpretation mixing satire and horror with the blackest of humour. There are some brilliant visual flourishes, such as the hallucinatory slow-motion dance scenes and a rather striking montage sequence (complete with a slow-jam cover of ABBA’s S.O.S. by Portishead), all of which underline the insanity of what is taking place. Add to this an accomplished production design by Mark Tildesley and stunning cinematography by Laurie Rose and it’s hard not to revel at its genius.
Tom Hiddleston delivers a first-class performance as Dr Robert Laing, the single, highly-eligible young doctor who lives on the 25th floor. Hiddleston interpretation of Laing is spot-on, with the actor delivering just the right amount sympathy, intelligence and raw carnality to make his performance unsettling yet captivating.
Luke Evans is a revelation as documentary film-maker Richard Wilder, stealing scenes with his over-the-top performance which perfectly matches the material. Elisabeth Moss is equally good as his quiet, heavily pregnant wife Helen, even if her English accent sounds a little dodgy at times.
The remaining residents are filled with likewise remarkable talent. Sienna Miller gives a memorable performance as Charlotte Melville, the bohemian single mother who instantly shows a keen sexual interest in Laing. Jeremy Irons also shines as Anthony Royal, the aristocratic architect who designed the high-rise and lives in the penthouse with his queenly wife Ann (Keeley Hawes).
Whilst I personally enjoyed the film, HIGH-RISE isn’t without its stumbling blocks. Crucially, the delineation of the class system isn’t made clear so newcomers to Ballard’s story may find the film a little difficult to get their head around. Ballard spends a good deal of the book detailing the inner workings of the block’s caste system, as well as the psychology of the residents but without this background, the tower’s societal collapse may feel a bit like a non-event. My experience of the film was greatly enhanced by the fact I had read the book but if you haven’t, there’s a good choice you’ll likely leave the cinema feeling a little bemused.
That said, the film is certainly visually arresting and there is goldmine of rich material here, all beautifully shot. Ben Wheatley took on a crazed beast when he agreed to lovingly recreate Ballard’s classic novel. Thankfully he delivered, producing a beautiful crazed beast of his own.
HIGH-RISE makes its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival on 9 October 2015 and is released in UK cinemas in March 2016.
This review was originally written for ScreenRelish