Skip to main content

Well, one thing's for sure: this building's nowhere near as homogenous as some would like to think.

High-Rise
(2015)

(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.
Laing: Acquiescence?
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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

I fear I’ve snapped his Gregory.

Twin Peaks 3.14: We are like the Dreamer.
(SPOILERS) In an episode as consistently dazzling as this, piling incident upon incident and joining the dots to the extent it does, you almost begin to wonder if Lynch is making too much sense. There’s a notable upping of the pace in We are like the Dreamer, such that Chad’s apprehension is almost incidental, and if the convergence at Jack Rabbit’s Tower didn’t bring the FBI in with it, their alignment with Dougie Coop can be only just around the corner.

And you people, you’re all astronauts... on some kind of star trek.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
(SPOILERS) Star Trek: First Contact (also known as plain First Contact, back when “Star Trek” in the title wasn’t necessarily a selling point to the great unwashed. Or should that be great washed?) is probably about as good as a ST:TNG movie could be, in as much as it actively rejects much of what made the TV series what it is: starchy, placid, smug, platitudinous exchanges about how evolved humanity has become in the 25th century. Yeah, there’s a fair bit of that here too, but it mainly recognises that what made the series good, when it was good, was dense, time travel plotting and Borg. Mostly Borg. Until Borg became, like any golden egg, overcooked. Oh, and there’s that other hallowed element of the seven seasons, the goddam holodeck, but the less said about that the better. Well, maybe a paragraph. First Contact is a solid movie, though, overcoming its inherent limitations to make it, by some distance, the best of the four big screen outings with Pic…

Now you're here, you must certainly stay.

The Avengers 4.1:The Town of No Return
The Avengers as most of us know it (but not in colour) arrives fully-fledged in The Town of No Return: glossier, more eccentric, more heightened, camper, more knowing and more playful. It marks the beginning of slumming it film directors coming on board (Roy Ward Baker) and sees Brian Clemens marking out the future template. And the Steed and Mrs Peel relationship is fully established from the off (albeit, this both was and wasn’t the first episode filmed). If the Steed and Cathy Gale chemistry relied on him being impertinently suggestive, Steed and Emma is very much a mutual thing.

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Don’t get tipsy. We can’t have you hiccoughing in the coffin.

The Avengers 4.2: The Murder Market
Tony Williamson’s first teleplay for the series picks up where Brian Clemens left off and then some, with murderous goings-on around marriage-making outfit Togetherness Inc (“Where there is always a happy ending”). Peter Graham Scott, in his first of four directing credits, sets out a winning stall where cartoonishness and stylisation are the order of the day. As is the essential absurdity of the English gentleman, with Steed’s impeccable credentials called on to illustrious effect not seen since The Charmers.

Cool. FaceTime without a phone.

Sense8 Season One
(SPOILERS) The Wachowskis do like their big ideas, but all too often their boldness and penchant for hyper-realism drowns out all subtlety. Their aspirations may rarely exceed their technical acumen, but regularly eclipse their narrative skills. And with J Michael Straczynski on board, whose Babylon 5 was marked out by ahead-of-its-time arc plotting but frequently abysmal dialogue, it’s no wonder Sense8 is as frequently clumsy in the telling as it is arresting in terms of spectacle.

I frequently had the feeling that Sense8 was playing into their less self-aware critical faculties, the ones that produced The Matrix Reloaded rave rather than the beautifully modulated Cloud Atlas. Sense8 looks more like the latter on paper: interconnecting lives and storylines meshing to imbue a greater meaning. The truth is, however, their series possesses the slenderest of central plotlines. It’s there for the siblings to hang a collection of cool ideas, set pieces, themes and fascina…

How dare you shush a shushing!

Home (2015)
(SPOILERS) Every so often, DreamWorks Animation offer a surprise, or they at least attempt to buck their usual formulaic approach. Mr. Peabody & Sherman surprised with how sharp and witty it was, fuelled by a plot that didn’t yield to dumbing down, and Rise of the Guardians, for all that its failings, at least tried something different. When such impulses lead to commercial disappointment, it only encourages the studio to play things ever safer, be that with more Madagascars or Croods. Somewhere in Home is the germ of a decent Douglas Adams knock-off, but it would rather settle on cheap morals, trite messages about friendship and acceptance and a succession of fluffy dance anthems: an exercise in thoroughly varnished vacuity.

Those dance anthems come (mostly) courtesy of songstress Rhianna, who also voices teenager Tip, and I’m sure Jeffrey Katzenberg fully appreciated what a box office boon it would be to have her on board. The effect is cumulatively nauseating though, l…

A man who doesn't love easily loves too much.

Twin Peaks 2.17: Wounds and Scars
The real problem with the last half of the second season, now it has the engine of Windom Earle running things, is that there isn’t really anything else that’s much cop. Last week, Audrey’s love interest was introduced: your friend Billy Zane (he’s a cool dude). This week, Coop’s arrives: Annie Blackburn. On top of that, the desperation that is the Miss Twin Peaks Contest makes itself known.

I probably don’t mind the Contest as much as some, however. It’s undoubtedly lame, but it at least projects the season towards some kind of climax. If nothing else, it resolutely highlights Lynch’s abiding fascination with pretty girls, as if that needed any further attention drawn to it.

Special Agent Cooper: You made it just right, Annie.
I also like Heather Graham’s Annie. Whatever the behind the scenes wrangles that led to the disintegration of the Coop-Audrey romance (and it will be rather unceremoniously deconstructed in later Coop comments), it’s certainly the …