August 24, 2016
2 mins read

For almost 30 years, British producer Jeremy Thomas had struggled to bring J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise — a book deemed “unfilmable” — to the big screen. (The same was said of Nabokov’s Lolita, of course, and many other controversial works.) At one time, Nicolas Roeg was set to direct, and we can only imagine what kind of movie the creator of Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth might have fashioned.

In the end, the job went to Ben Wheatley, one of England’s most exciting and original directors who, despite having four acclaimed independent features to his credit, had never worked with an A-class cast on a substantial budget. Wheatley is up to the big names and big bucks. High-Rise might not be as uniformly satisfying as Kill List (2011), Sightseers (2012), or the supremely weird A Field in England (2013), but it’s good treatment.

The film opens with a brief prologue by bearded, unkempt Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), sporting a tie and a blood-soaked white shirt as he puts a classical recording on the turntable. “For all its inconveniences,” he says in a voice-over, “Laing was satisfied with life in the high-rise.” We follow him through the wreckage of a building, with a white husky, as he continues, “Now that so many of the residents were out of the way, he felt able to relax. More in charge of himself. Ready to move forward and explore life.”

A few startling scenes later on — one with a dead man with his head in a TV console — Laing removes his tie and pets his dog. A quick edit later, and he’s roasting the dog’s leg on a spit over an open fire. Welcome to High-Rise!

In the satirical vein of A Clockwork Orange, Ballard’s novel (and the film), both set in the ’70s, imagine a world of high design and carefully detailed order where everything slips into anarchy and violence. The prologue cuts to three months earlier: the elegantly attired Dr. Laing, a neurosurgeon (we learn), moves into an obviously expensive new high-rise apartment complex, a self-sustaining community with its own grocery store and other amenities.

Streamlined and aseptic, the building seems a pleasure-palace for the rich and famous and, on lower floors, their not-quite-so equals. At the hospital, Laing peels flesh from a human head, showing how “the facial mask simply slips off the skull.” The rest of the film shows how similar masks, literal and metaphorical, slip from their subjects as the human comedy spins out of control.

Things quickly begin to go wrong in the high-rise, mechanical and otherwise, as the architect (Jeremy Irons) tries vainly to maintain control from his penthouse while his wife throws parties with 18th-century costumes and her horse. Laing gets involved with the architect’s mistress (Sienna Miller) and bastard son Toby, an inquisitive, observant boy, while the lower floors are galvanized into action by a frustrated TV producer (Luke Evans) whose pregnant wife (Elisabeth Moss) tries to manage her already-considerable brood.

Violent and absurdist, High-Rise had a limited release in the U.S. before going to home video. This is not a reflection on the film’s quality, but rather its limited appeal to a broad audience, especially here. The movie ends with the precocious Toby perched on a crane, listening to Margaret Thatcher proclaim that “there is only one economic system in the world and that is capitalism.” Meanwhile, the utopian world of the high-rise has quite literally gone to the dogs.

With the exception of Sightseers, written by its two co-stars, Wheatley’s films were written by him and/or his wife, Amy Jump, who assumes solo credit for High-Rise. Trying to stick to Ballard’s satirical attack on class structure, the film lacks the punch it might have had earlier, something like Lindsay Anderson’s If… (’68). It’s almost as if Wheatley and Jump feel constrained by their source material’s reputation, reluctant to go all out for the choke-hold as in their earlier, independent films.

Don’t get me wrong. High-Rise is certainly shocking, just not as much as it might’ve been. Fans of Wheatley and the film’s stars should check it out.

Folio is your guide to entertainment and culture around and near Jacksonville, Florida. We cover events, concerts, restaurants, theatre, sports, art, happenings, and all things about living and visiting Jax. Folio serves more than two million readers across Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, including St. Augustine, The Beaches, and Fernandina.

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