Directed by: Ben Wheatley
Produced by: Jeremy Thomas
Screenplay by: Amy Jump
Based on: High-Rise by J.G. Ballard
Starring: Tom Hiddleston
Music by: Clint Mansell
Cinematography by: Laurie Rose
Editing by: Amy Jump
Studio(s): Recorded Picture Company
British Film Institute
Northern Ireland Screen
Distributed by: StudioCanal
Release date(s): September 13, 2015 (TIFF)
March 18, 2016 (United Kingdom)
April 28, 2016 (United States)
Running time: 119 minutes
Country: United Kingdom
Production budget: £6.1 million (approximately $8 million)
Box-office revenue (as of publication): $4, 152, 521
Today's film up for review is High-Rise, Ben Wheatley's adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel.
I would like to begin this review by regaling y'all with a little story. I work on occasion with Extras NI, a Northern Ireland based agency who provide background artists (that is the industry terminology, not mine) for film and television productions. As such, I've worked for them on Game Of Thrones, and I have to say they are a terrific bunch of folks to work for, and if anyone in Northern Ireland ever gets the opportunity to work for them, do. At the start of 2014, I got a text from Extras NI for 'a high-profile production,' to be shot in Bangor, giving me the dates for four days work. Unfortunately, the latter two dates clashed with a music festival in my private security job, so I turned this down. A couple of months later, I went and bought Ballard's High-Rise in Waterstones, and was told at the till that they were shooting this in Bangor. Things clicked in my head, and on the boat trip over to V Festival at Weston Park in Staffordshire, a number of my colleagues who had been working security on the set told me about it and it sounded pretty cool, so I rang their office the next day. I had already missed two of the dates that I was wanted for, so I said on the phone that I'd gladly work for free or volunteer as a runner on those other two days, just so I could be able to gain from the experience of working on the production. Then I was informed, as pleasantly possible though, I might add, that they weren't just looking me for a standard extra part, but that they wanted me for one of four featured parts in the film, and that because obviously it had already been cast, production had started and I'd missed those two dates I was unable to participate. Needless to say I was shocked to hear that I had turned down a featuring part in High-Rise to travel to a job at Creamfields Festival in Cheshire, the shittiest of the shittiest festivals, with the most mud, least sleep, worst crowd, crap music and badly accommodated campsite (why was it that ours was the only one that never seemed to have any hay put down to deal with the mud? I should know, every day I had to walk through all the campsites for an hour, even after doing up to seventeen-hour shifts!) that you can think of. And of course, despite my making those decisions and sacrifices to my personal and professional life, I'm now being blackballed for refusing to work the holidays and being tarred and feathered as a disloyal worker, and yadda yadda yadda, everything's going fabulous there! Hey there, how you doin'?
Now that story time with Cal is over, let's get down to business. As I've mentioned already, High-Rise is Ben Wheatley's adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel, but producer Jeremy Thomas (a man who I've a lot respect for) has been trying to get this project up and going more or less since it's original publication in 1975. In the late 1970s, it was being developed with Nicolas Roeg and Paul Mayersberg, the directorial-writing collaborators behind Roeg's masterpiece with David Bowie, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and later Eureka, and later in the 2000s with Richard Stanley and Vincenzo Natali writing and directing respectively. In 2013, Ben Wheatley became interested in finding out who owned the rights to the book, leading him to Thomas, with the two becoming collaborators and Wheatley bring his regular screenwriting partner and wife Amy Jump to adapt the book. In High-Rise, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a twenty-fifth floor apartment of a luxury tower block, quickly beginning a relationship single mother Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), and becoming friends with documentarian Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his heavily-pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss). He also becomes friendly with the building architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), who lives on the fortieth floor at the top of the high-rise with his eccentric and snobby wife Ann (Keeley Hawes). Thus, Laing is perfectly placed as our protagonist, because for all of it's hype as the future of modern living, things don't go so well in the high-rise, as we see the residents become increasingly disinterested in the outside world, becoming instead absorbed in the tensions between each other, threatening to descend the whole building into chaos. Got it? Good!
Starting off with the good, I want to praise the general direction of the film, and I don't mean just the directorial work of Ben Wheatley, but also of Jeremy Thomas as producer. Ballard's High-Rise is something that was never going to be an easy, straight adaptation, but Wheatley and Thomas have ploughed on forward with a highly uncompromising flick. Wheatley goes all out, his interpretation of the text being less the scientific approach Ballard takes but rather we climb inside the minds of the characters inhabiting the high-rise. Everything is experienced through their eyes, and as such we too are invited into the delirium, the madness, the revery, the psychological descent/ascent of these characters from the trappings of modern society. Thomas deserves a lot of praise for backing Wheatley's very particular vision for the film, which doubtless is challenging for some viewers to swallow. A lesser producer could have said "no" and made a more run-of-the-mill adaptation. Another aspect I want to praise about the film is the visual aspect of the film, both in terms of the cinematography and the mise-en-scene. There is some great production design on display here, making the most of the film's small budget, replicating the brutalist structures that began to rise up in post-war England in the 1960s and 70s. Notwithstanding their look, there is also this sense of alienation that comes from the sense of space between the characters. Despite them all being neighbours and residents living in the same building, we can see that both physically and psychologically they are distant from one another. In that regard, Laurie Rose's cinematography also contributes to that sense of space. Yes, she does some great work with the actors, but even within close proximity of one another, it feels like there is a vacuum, a void, as though conversations are occurring over two opposite side of a river. This quality can also be put down to some strong performances from the actors. Tom Hiddleston is a great lead as Dr. Robert Laing. Not only is it a thoroughly dedicated physical performance, I mean, he really throws himself into it, but I think mentally he just gets it. He has the task of being the audience's voice of reason amidst all of the chaos going around him, trying to make sense of the proceedings, and yet we can see, slowly, in his own quiet way, Laing is living his own personal madness. Hiddleston does all of this with confidence and assured, tactful knowledge, knowing when to draw the line and when to go out. It's also the best performance I've seen out of Sienna Miller in a long time. Now, in fairness it isn't usually her fault, because as we've seen in films like American Sniper, she oftentimes ends up getting saddled with a lesser role to her male counterparts. Here, as Charlotte Melville, you can almost see her relishing something with a bit of substance, depicting Charlotte as stuck in the middle of wanting to hold on to her sanity but being drawn in by the allure of madness. Speaking of physical, Luke Evans is great in his supporting role as Richard Wilder. On the one hand, you have this loving, caring family man, but on the other he is at heart a complete and utter hedonist, and Evans completely embraces this. The last actor I'd like to praise is Jeremy Irons for his part as Anthony Royal. Irons' Royal is a dreamer who wants to create a haven for others, but almost inevitably ends up being distanced from them, despite his attempts to develop friendships with others. You also get the sense through Irons' performance that although he is having a moral crisis, struggling with conscience as he sits in his top floor apartment seeing everything he has planned go awry, that in his quieter moments he is still plotting, planning as to how he can use the situation(s) to his advantage. Irons is a subtle performer who can convey a lot through seemingly not doing much, through small gestures and tones. Finally, Clint Mansell's score is a fine accompaniment to the film. Not only is it able to convey the quizzical mystery behind the phenomenon of what is occurring onscreen through pieces with percussive and woodwind instruments, but in an interesting way when it head towards sections with more grandeur, once the strings kick in, it becomes almost a satirical commentary. You have this elegant, almost romantic at times music, and it acts as a juxtaposition to the debacles onscreen. It's a strong example of the things that High-Rise as a film does right when it is at it's best.
Now, while there was a lot I liked about High-Rise, I do feel that is also a film that has a number of flaws, ensuring that while it is a very good film, it's not the great film that it could have been or aspires to be. The first issue I would like to flag up is that while we have a great cast playing these characters, I never got the sense that they were anything more than just that, characters. It's not my favourite of Ballard's novels, to be honest (for that I'd have to go with Crash), and I think the original source material has something of the same issue, although to a lesser extent. I got this feeling that there was something missing, and it wasn't until the film finished that I realised what it was; pathos. I felt that the film was too cold and clinical in dealing with it's characters, and because of this I unable to engage what I feel to be legitimate emotional empathy with them. I was watching what was happening to them, or what they themselves were causing, but I didn't care for the outcome or the consequences of their actions. I think this is down to a director and screenwriter who (and I mean this with the best of respect, but it is a negative criticism nonetheless) are more focused on the thematic content. The characters feel like psychological devices used as a commentary on the socio-political thesis proposed, as opposed to fully fleshed people in their own right. Also, Wheatley and Jump also edited the film, and at just shy of two hours, it's too long. It could have been cut back by about fifteen or twenty minutes, bringing it in at a far brisker running time and not let it overstay it's welcome, especially for a film as full on as this one is.
On another note, this sounds terrible to say in relation to this film, but there is another work I can recommend in the place of both this and the original source material. David Cronenberg's first major film Shivers is also set in a modern high-rise apartment block, and it's residents too start to turn on one another, in this case caused by a sexually-transmitted parasite. On the one hand, it's almost a straight genre flick, sex zombies abound (the original title was Orgy Of The Blood Parasites), but in that Cronenbergian way it also an intelligent commentary on contemporary society, and the beginning of his hot streak of 'venereal' horror films including The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly and Dead Ringers. Coincidentally, Shivers was also released in 1975, and it's interesting that an artist who cites Ballard as a major influence and would go on to adapt Crash in 1996, would out-Ballard the master at his own game.
I know that recommending another film in place of both the original source text and the film itself isn't exactly an endorsement, and neither are the negative criticisms I've levelled at it (the lacks of pathos in the characters, the editing/running time), but High-Rise is still a very good film. Yes, it's troubled, but there's still a lot to like about it. The general direction from Ben Wheatley and Jeremy Thomas as director and producer is daring and uncompromising, I appreciated and admired the visual aspect of the film from the mise-en-scene and cinematography standpoints, there are at least four strong performance from Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans and Jeremy Irons and I really liked Clint Mansell's score. It's a troubling film, but I still think it is one worth checking out and seeing what you make of it.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 7.7/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Cool
P.S. Terrific use of Portishead's cover of ABBA's SOS (link below)!