High_Rise_2014_Film_Poster

Director: Ben Wheatley

Screenplay: Amy Jump

Country: UK

Runtime: 112 mins

Cast: Tom Hiddleston (Dr Robert Laing), Jeremy Irons (Anthony Royal), Sienna Miller (Charlotte Melville), Luke Evans (Richard Wilder), Keeley Hawes (Ann Royal), Reece Shearsmith (Nathan Steele)

A mordantly witty adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel about a concrete apocalypse

Watching the opening scenes of High Rise, I found myself musing how film adaptations of a book one has previously read can change forever the way you envision the book. I can’t now read J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun without imagining Christian Bale and John Malkovich as the main characters. I also recall one contemporary reviewer expressing disappointment that the film’s depiction of drained swimming pools – one of the central motifs in many Ballard stories – just seemed a bit underwhelming when viewed on the big screen.

It will probably now be impossible to read High Rise without imagining Tom Hiddleston as physiologist Dr Robert Laing and Jeremy Irons as architect Anthony Royal. But I am delighted to report that Ben Wheatley’s film really brings to life the imagery and spirit of Ballard’s novel. More than anything, he brings to the fore the mordant wit of the book (something I recently discovered upon re-reading but missed entirely when I read it as a younger man).

The story begins with Laing cooking a dog on the balcony of his apartment, part of a luxury tower block complex that has somehow gone to wrack and ruin. Then we flash back to the early days of the building three months before in order to learn just how the concrete apocalypse has come about. The inhabitants are all middle class professionals, but even within this privileged group social divisions arise and are exacerbated as the building itself becomes increasingly dysfunctional. People don’t care about those two or more floors above or below them and, in particular, those on higher levels have greater disdain for those further below them.

In a dreamlike fashion (reminiscent of Wheatley’s earlier A Field in England) anti-social behaviour escalates, from people blocking the rubbish chutes with used nappies, to parties that get out of hand, through to outright violence. As food stocks run out living takes on the characteristics of an urban hunter-gather existence, with the stronger men vying to monopolise the female inhabitants. Where Ballard presciently satirised the behaviour of a group of proto-Thatcherites, Wheatley is more explicit about the political nature of the material. Following an uproarious party on the middle levels, Royal’s acolytes plan a grander party to show the others how it ought to be done. As one of them explains, competition is at the heart of a modern economy. They then decide that the first step in their party planning must be to commandeer all the resources, surely as pointed a commentary on the nature of capitalism as it’s possible to make? High Rise actually closes with an excerpt of a speech by Margaret Thatcher.

Tom Hiddleston is totally convincing as the canny survivor “hiding in plain sight” who, as with so many of Ballard’s protagonists, embraces the catastrophe around him. And Jeremy Irons is an inspired piece of casting as the patrician architect of the luxury apartment complex, who watches with fascinated amusement at the creation of a new kind of society within his decaying empire. From the men’s terrible moustaches to the cars in the parking lot, Ben Wheatley does a great job of depicting the mid-seventies whilst nonetheless making it seem like the dystopian near-future that Ballard first envisioned. And if it won’t be possible to read his novel in the same way again, the same will be true of Abba’s song S.O.S. which is featured at several points in the soundtrack.

Rating: 5/5

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