There is a great deal of good will being offered towards Ben Wheatley’s new film High-Rise. An adaptation of JG Ballard’s novel of the same name, there is something imperative about the project (exciting director, production values not often seen in UK art cinema these days, and an artistic golden thread running through late 20th century cinematic expression), creating the sense that British cinema needs High-Rise. It needs something to help it back to that place it occupied when auteurs like Peter Greenaway, Ken Russell, and Derek Jarman were at their differing peaks. For the most part, the British public weren’t watching these filmmakers’ efforts but they knew who they were and they knew that something peculiarly British and darkly ambitious was coalescing in their films. They made films that teenagers would stumble across on television late at night, and at their best, films like The Devils, Caravaggio and The Draughtsman’s Contract were shamanic: the nudity hooked you in, the pervading disquiet kept you there. There is nothing comparable in the contemporary British cinematic landscape, except perhaps the films Ben Wheatley is making. When we talk about artistic expression in British contemporary film we have no proper cultural reference points, and so there is a yearning that this film somehow transports the whole industry to a new place.
JG Ballard wrote High-Rise in 1975. It was a continuation of a narrative question he had asked in all his novels since The Wind From Nowhere in 1961. The question was always the same: what would happen if the artifices of civilised society were torn away from us? How quickly would we descend? High-Rise was not unique in answering the question, by confirming that in stripping away our genteel social conventions we’d find ourselves animalistic, by turns nasty, brutish and short. But High-Rise is perhaps somewhat unique in that the stripping away of social grace and order had never before been portrayed so gleefully. It wasn’t a cautionary tale, it was a full-scale invitation to riotous freedom of soul through violence. I had for a very long time thought High-Rise would make a neat film if made bravely. JG Ballard, an iconoclastic writer, is infrequently portrayed in film, most notably in Cronenberg’s Crash and Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. Any portrayal should be seen as an event.
The film follows the book closely. It concerns life in a newly built brutalist high-rise. The directorial decision to set the film in the Seventies is somewhat kitsch in presentation and possibly doesn’t work, but in British contemporary history the Seventies sit as a fulcrum of three competing ideals (or systems of control). The tower is a Utopia, an attempt to blend American aspirationalism (expressed in the generic supermarket at the base of the tower, or the home improvement devices that never seem to quite work, or the fact that it’s called a high-rise and not a tower block), socialist flattening (Brutalism, an architecture of concrete, was always a socialist movement: its legacy is social housing, university buildings and mostly council offices.) and the British social class system. The film, and to a degree the book, focuses mostly on Class as subject, somewhat to the detriment of open portrayal of the other two, and perhaps losing a real sense of historical allegory because of this (in a real allegory the supermarket would come to own the tower!). Class was more pervasively felt in Seventies Britain than in the 21st century: the very rich hadn’t yet learnt to adapt to fit in. (They are still there, they still dominate, for example Britain’s current Government is filled with the products of Eton, but they’ve had to learn to talk differently. The outward presentation is different and to get on, it is important in 21st century Britain to be upper class; it is, however, important not to seem it.)
At the top of the tower we encounter the upper classes, lower down the middle class. Each higher floor represents a step up in standing. Our protagonist, a doctor named Laing (Tom Hiddleston, providing starry casting) lives somewhere in the middle. A social climber embraced by no particular group, the book, but less so the film, traces his journey from passive observer to emancipated agent provocateur.
The catalyst of this journey is the building, which, still teething, begins to fail. Most notably the electrics go. Classes, represented by floors, clash in a bitter fight for resources: the swimming pool, food in the supermarket, lifts. It is Lord of the Flies with squash racquets; The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie with sideburns. But born from the clash for resources is a new reality; the violence emancipates. People are not unhappy, they are somehow happier, transcendent in their filth, busily eating their pets.
There are so many things the film could be: dark, sexy, brutal, exciting. The set-up is a deep container for allegory. But it misses its mark. It’s hard to know what the film is. It isn’t exciting, the directorial decision to show the descent, the floor-versus-floor brinkmanship mostly in montage, leaves us never actually witnessing any real journey for our protagonist or anyone else (the nearest we get is to see him vigorously shagging a pregnant Elisabeth Moss as catharsis, and fighting over a tin of paint). The stakes aren’t at all clear. It isn’t sexy, it isn’t disturbing on a base level, and most critically, sadly, it isn’t disquieting. I think there is an aspiration to disquiet, to ape the queerness of Cronenberg’s Crash, for example. This film even presents a scene decidedly similar to the scene in Crash where Deborah Unger talks continuously while James Spader has sex with her. In this case Sienna Miller asks Hiddleston about his dead sister while he makes love to her – but Crash upsets some sensibility in us, it taps a root that High-Rise can’t quite find and Miller’s character (fairly well portrayed for the most part) seems indulgent rather than strange.
Some performances are good. Luke Evans as the lower-middle-class Wilder channels a very particular Seventies threat, the hard-drinking stocky rugby player. He is Oliver Reed personified, it’s the most full-blooded and meaningful portrayal in the film and brings the ‘edge’ others seem unable to bring. A sequence which sees him, while lying under a glass table and answering questions put to him by playing handheld tape recordings of himself earlier, reaching some grunting, screeching primal state, is the high point of the film’s stretch for something more potent. No other scene compares to it. Other arty sequences have the air of music video about them.
Some performances are very poor. All of those representing the upper classes struggle to extend themselves beyond high-school level comic foppery (one is reminded of the scene in Carry On Up the Khyber where the upper classes continue their dinner party while a battle is pursued outside, but that was funny and neatly observed and this isn’t). Jeremy Irons’ gnomic Architect should be some form of narrative lynchpin but has so little grounding in meaning as to leave the viewer continuously perplexed by his presence.
Hiddleston’s Laing is an enigma. At one point after sex a character describes him as the ‘best amenity in the building’, but what does this mean? Apparently enough for him to be somewhat upset by it. But why? He is part Tom Ripley, part James Bond, all cypher, but with nowhere to go. Hiddleston is more than competent, but we never get to see him actually do anything. It’s a frustrating piece of characterisation, no less so because the film begins with a flash forward to him gleefully eating a dog yet we have no real sense of how he got there.
There is the sense that Wheatley as a filmmaker was overwhelmed by possibility. It’s in the Seventies, it’s kind of Sci-Fi, at times it’s allegory, at times it’s surreal, at times it’s grand guignol, at times it’s subtle character observation, at times it’s visual expressionism, at times it’s decidedly conservative. Wheatley described it as the biggest cast he had worked with, but there is so much casting ephemera in the film: a woman who is a movie star seems oddly out of place, as does the neighbourly busybody endlessly chastising people for blocking the waste chutes. There is some narrative around filmmakers that makes no sense at all.
The film feels both long and short. Like watching a TV series and realising you’ve missed an episode in the middle and consequently the latter episodes you are watching don’t quite make sense. The narrative is all over the place: pregnant ladies are kidnapped and then become maids, a plot to lobotomise Wilder is hatched and forgotten, the Architect bumps his head during a game of squash. It’s confusing, like eating a sponge cake filled with fish and spaghetti – the chef needed to decide what kind of meal he wanted to make and stick with it.
There is ambition here, and that should be applauded; the film is watchable and might reward repeat viewing. But it is unlikely to give the British film industry the artistic impetus it needs. For now, the kind of disquieting cinema that by the end of it makes you feel like you’ve opened a door and seen something you shouldn’t have, but feel wrong for liking, isn’t something that we can expect from the UK and possibly isn’t something we can expect from Ben Wheatley, though we saw glimpses of it most notably in The Kill List. Perhaps High-Rise is the start of a journey for Wheatley towards something quite potent and new, but likely High-Rise is more a genre experiment that he’ll move on from.