(SPOILERS) There seem to have been plans to adapt JG Ballard’s High-Rise in getting on for forever, but Ben Wheatley’s achievement in finally succeeding could well leave you thinking it would have best been left on the page. Written by regular collaborator, wife Amy Jump, the picture is a turgid, disconnected mess, one in which the satirical elements are either so underlined they have long since shuffled off any impact or are tonally buried by Wheatley’s general uncertainty over quite how to underpin his ungainly edifice.
There’s a lot of mood in Wheatley’s film, but it’s mostly bad mood, and it’s so inert dramatically, sometimes it feels as if you’re watching a tableau. There are lots of well-staged shots, but nothing holding them together; it becomes meaningless montage. Possibly the self-consciously retro-’70s (revisited for his latest, Free Fire) setting handicapped him.
Certainly, there’s a lack of congruence between the (not-so) gradual escalation of anarchy in the tower block and the oblivious continuance of normal life outside. The picture isn’t sufficiently heightened in milieu or attitude for the commentary on isolation and degradation brought on by urban impersonality to resonate, so what you’re left with is that the narrative makes little logical sense. Like Snowpiercer, we have subtext made text in a building where the privileged lodge up top while the chattering classes rot down below, but there’s an instant disconnect in translating that idea from page to screen. It feels like a stretch that the rich would even share the same street as the riff-raff, let alone deign to co-exist in a building. And, since there’s nothing (barring an apocalypse) to stop residents leaving, rather than wallowing in the spiralling depravity, the picture ends up looking like weightless, posturing bereft of core integrity.
Wilder: Living in a high-rise requires a special type of behaviour.
Wilder: Restraint. Helps if you’re slightly mad.
What is said is announced by Luke Evans’ Richard Wilder, commenting on the kind architecture of that shoves its subjects together in a combined space and sends them slowly, inexorably mad. Really, though, this rising urban tension isn’t explored in any kind of visceral or coherent manner; Royal’s great social experiment is more about the art direction than an exploration of the crumbling psyche in a deleterious environment. Wilder’s rapist is “possibly the sanest man I know” announces restrained, acquiescent Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), which tells you a lot about the other residents. Or indeed the cool, detached Laing (who we first see spit roasting a husky). At least, it would if they were remotely relatable as characters.
Wheatley occasionally offers a glimmer of engagement with the material, rather than just staring it down. Although, as Laing, Tom Hiddleston is in danger of turning into his own posh caricature of the urbane, smooth equivalent of Hugh Grant’s comedy stammerer of the ‘90s, his attempts to climb the social ladder are some of the few episodes that offer any dramatic consequence, be it threatened by heavy Simmons (Dan Renton Skinner, Bosh from Reeves and Mortimer’s House of Fools, is bizarre casting, but strangely effective) or playing caustic tennis with Jeremy Irons’ aloof and cutting architect Royal. But the essential poshness of Hiddleston, who he exudes the air of those who won’t let him join their gang, undercuts the tension of his intent.
In addition, Wheately, possibly due to budget, but more likely owing to a lack of wherewithal, offers little sense of geography in this all-defining space. Worse, his various locations, be it rooftop, swimming pool or carpark, only ever feel like disparate locations, never part of the wholer building.
The rising tensions and outbreaks of violence lack sufficient build-up (I wasn’t the greatest fan of Kill List, but one thing it definitely had was an inescapable sense of escalation), and the breakdown of this society in microcosm/building form are fractured and unconvincing.
There’s orgiastic violence as well as orgiastic orgies. And lots of eating of pets, but it’s all profoundly unaffecting. We see rotting fruit in the on-site supermarket at one point, but only much later are there fights over food (and paint). Any sequence or shot only ever seems to be about that sequence or shot (there’s a beautiful piece of kaleidoscopic violence when Wilder meets his end, but it’s a propos nothing). I don’t suppose it matters if you’re uninterested in assembling something that hangs together, but as it is, this has no more dramatic tension than, say The Bedsitting Room; High-Rise is at least as unsubtle with its targets, when indeed it is hitting its targets.
The cast are mostly pretty good, meriting the adaption with more talent than it deserves. Evans is surprisingly strong (I say that because he hasn’t fared too well of late in starring roles), embodying something of a ‘70s Oliver Reed in Wilder’s feral, pugilistic menace (since he was aiming for this, the boy Evans done well), and James Purefoy is reliably superior and disdainful. Some roles (notably those of Elizabeth Moss and Keeley Hawes) are undernourished, while some, such as Reece Shearsmith, stick out like a sore thumb, his performance far too broad for Wheatley’s style. Maybe Shearsmith had the right idea, but for the wrong director; maybe approaching High-Rise like an extended episode of League of Gentlemen would have done it favours. Certainly, Wheatley appears to have been the wrong director.
Or perhaps it’s just that Ballard’s satire has dated? Not in terms of the themes lacking topicality, but in the crudeness of the presentation. Lines such as “I conceived this building as a crucible for change - I must have missed some vital element” might have seemed pertinent in ’75, but are bleeding obvious regarding the failures of modern social planning now (Wheatley even adds a Thatcher quote at the end, as if the gist wasn’t evident enough).
Which may explain why Wheatley went period, but the decision doesn’t help matters. And with it, the tipping point of man revelling in technological progress before falling prey to the same in primitive regress, when the former goes bad, is rendered rather arbitrarily (it isn’t the most insightful of insights anyway, much explored, and the third act for most Alex Garland screenplays). Wheatley’s made a picture of messy transitions (he must take the blame for the editing) and narrative incontinence; High-Rise has no rhythm, no form. It’s shapeless. Perhaps, as was once suggested, it is indeed unfilmable?
Would Nicolas Roeg’s version have been better? I’m bound to think so, particularly since Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Eureka) wrote that screenplay). Or Richard Stanley’s script for Vincenzo Natali? Stanley offers hope, Natali’s previous form less so. Bruce Robinson also penned a screenplay in the late ‘70s. Cronenberg’s clinical indifference might have done the material a service, if he hadn’t already done a horror in an apartment block (Shivers, released the same year as Ballard’s novel). As it is, I’d sooner rewatch Sylvester McCoy in the goofy Doctor Who take on the premise (Paradise Towers), which at least refuses to get bogged down in its own self-importance (it hardly could, not with Richard Briers hamming it up the way he does). At least that story had a sufficiently absurdist approach; someone who can make the abstract elements of Ballard work for rather than against the adaptation. I hadn’t bought into the cult of Wheatley before this, and at this point I suspect it’s never going to happen.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.