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Towards Year Zero: Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise

Author: • Oct 19th, 2015 •

Category: alternate worlds, architecture, film, gated communities, inner space, Lead Story, medical procedure, micronations, reviews, Shanghai, the middle classes


In September 2015, Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel, had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Reactions covered the entire spectrum: people loved it, people loathed it, people were bored by it.

The UK premiere was in London recently, and Mike Holliday attended; he loved it. His verdict? A very worthy addition to the growing catalogue of Ballard feature films.

..:: CAUTION: spoilers ahead…

“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

J.G. Ballard, High-Rise (1975)

The film begins – as it surely must – with the eating of the dog, reprising the memorable opening sentence of Ballard’s novel. A dishevelled and blood-splattered Tom Hiddleston, playing Dr Robert Laing, barbecues the severed leg of an Alsatian, complete with hairy paw, before Wheatley backtracks to show how Laing came to this.

A good opening, then ­– but how does the rest of it fare? After all, the novel is more concerned with describing a process than telling a story. A homogenous group of middle-class professionals, living in a massive tower block, are set on a path towards a psychological and social Year Zero. Conflicts of interest, generated by the vertical layout of the high-rise, are exacerbated by the building’s technical problems. This creates a kind of class struggle between those on the bottom levels and those at the top. This hierarchical society soon degenerates into a multitude of warring clans, before disintegrating into total barbarism as the inhabitants fend for themselves. As usual with Ballard, the catastrophe has a positive side. At the start of the novel, the isolated characters within their apartments have no sense of real freedom. Yet by by the end, those same individuals may have a chance of self-fulfilment – if they can grasp it.

Clip from High-Rise.

But how to reflect this in cinematic terms? That was the puzzle facing Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump. There were obvious dangers to avoid, such as mutilating the novel by rendering it as straight class warfare, or making the plot turn on the personalities of the main protagonists rather than the effect the high-rise has on its inhabitants. Wheatley’s adaptation, while faithful to the book, doesn’t follow it slavishly. The setting remains the mid-1970s – or rather, that era’s near future. The novel’s three major characters are also intact. Jeremy Irons plays Anthony Royal, the architect intent on imposing his will and a hierarchical structure on the tower’s inhabitants. Luke Evans plays Richard Wilder, the aggressive organiser of the lower floors, nearly stealing the show with his portrayal based on the real-life Oliver Reed. And Tom Hiddleston is near perfect as Robert Laing, providing the right mix of passivity and repressed aggression for a character who desires faceless anonymity yet still craves social relationships. Several minor characters also remain, and Sienna Miller in particular gives a fine performance as Charlotte Melville, Laing’s single-parent neighbour.


Luke Evans as Wilder.

Not everything from the book can be found in the film. Wilder’s obsessive yet ultimately motiveless attempt to reach the top of the building is underplayed, and Wheatley strips away the psychological idiosyncrasies of the main characters, which Ballard used to beef up the book’s narrative structure. Laing’s near-incestuous relationship with his sister is gone, while Wilder’s regression back to childhood is played down. There are extra ingredients, however, often exaggerated versions of what’s already in the book, with Wheatley’s characteristic playfulness evident throughout. As described by Ballard, Anne Royal was brought up in a country house copied from a Loire chateau, complete with retinue of servants; in the film, she throws parties where everyone dresses as 18th-century French aristocrats. And the tower block’s massive roof garden comes complete with a horse, which, of course, gets eaten.

In a more subtle register, Wheatley reinterprets one of the book’s key metaphors: Anne Royal’s fondness for mirrors; as Ballard puts it, ‘this replication of herself gave her some kind of security’. The metaphor appears twice: firstly as the mirrored lift available for the upper-floor residents, and again in the double act formed between Anne (played by Keeley Hawes) and the actress Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory). The two look disconcertingly similar, at one point lying side-by-side on the bed like identical twins.

High-Rise is a stylish, fast-moving film when it has to be, and the cinematography is as good as you’d expect, given that Wheatley retains the talents of Laurie Rose. Clint Mansell’s score works well, as do the contemporary music choices (Can, The Fall). Portishead’s version of the Abba hit ‘S.O.S’ is as good as everyone says it is, and the whole thing has the feel of a 70s Ken Russell film.


Tom Hiddleston as Laing.

Still, all of that doesn’t really tell you what’s going on with this movie – not by a long way. Around the half-hour mark, I felt a real sense of disappointment. The main characters seemed almost cartoonish, accentuated by Mansell’s perky score, and some of the dialogue had me wincing. Even the scene in the dissection room at the hospital where Laing works, for which Hiddleston rehearsed by attending an autopsy, seemed a mad caricature when compared to Ballard’s moving account of his own experience dissecting human bodies. But then we reach the stage where everything really does fall apart in the high-rise, and suddenly we were in the middle of a much-improved, more interesting film. The transition is marked by an excellent, dreamlike sequence covering several days and nights of mayhem and confusion. This was followed by a scene I especially liked, in which Laing completely loses it during a row over who has the last can of paint in the supermarket. ‘It’s my paint’, he screams, before severely beating up another shopper.

Later, reflecting on this change in the film’s character, I thought: ‘It suddenly got more real.’ Of course, that is precisely the point of the book. Initially, the tenants run along the tracks which society has laid down, providing them with safe passage through life. They have no sense of real freedom or fulfilment, Ballard suggests – that only comes when the veneer of civilisation is stripped away. So, Wheatley creates a film whose form rides along in parallel with its content. The film’s first half an hour is played out as an exaggerated simulacrum of ‘real’ life. We go to work, or to the supermarket. We interact with people we scarcely know – neighbours, colleagues – and remain artificially friendly and interested. The film’s remainder lacks coherent narrative or any explanation for what is happening, such as why the mayhem gets more and more out of hand or why they don’t all just leave the high-rise. But as Ballard understood from his childhood in wartime Shanghai, when you put a large group of humans in a stressful environment, the result is psychopathological behaviour and a period of confusion as people adjust to the new reality while still trying to hang on to the threads of the old. So the film’s second half is confused and dreamlike for the audience because that is what it is like for the characters.


Jeremy Irons as Royal.

In the book, the private reflections of the main characters provide some sort of explanation for the descent towards barbarity, but in the movie they are mostly reduced to the occasional short epigram uttered in conversation. These might raise a wry smile from those familiar with the book, but they are surely unhelpful to anyone new to Ballard, and may well be responsible for some of the reactions I heard from people leaving the cinema, like ‘pretentious rubbish!’. But in Wheatley’s film these reflections are provided by precisely the type of highly educated characters who are likely to try and display their understanding of the world by uttering some pretentious-sounding epigram. Early on, Royal shows Laing his original architectural plans for the development project, and Laing comments that they resemble ‘the unconscious diagram of a mysterious psychic event’. ‘Very good’, quips Royal. ‘I’ll use that.’ So are the film’s epigrams simply things said by its characters, or are they the way that the film explains itself? Or is Wheatley ironically quoting Ballard back to us?

Wheatley has said that on reading High-Rise, he felt that Ballard was playing with the novel’s form and structure, and the reader’s understanding of what narrative actually is, pretending the book is going one way, for example, and then making sure it doesn’t. He said that reading it was like negotiating ‘shifting sands’. Playing with form and structure, and with how it is perceived by the reader or viewer, is exactly what Wheatley does with the film. This, I suspect, accounts for the way in which it has polarised audiences. I thought that High-Rise only became ‘real’ after thirty minutes, yet many of the early reviews praised the first section for setting up a promising story, before damning the movie for disintegrating into an incoherent mess.


Alexandra Weaver as Lucy, Sienna Guillory as Ann Sheridan and Keeley Hawes as Ann Royal.

Of course, any attempt to adapt High-Rise was always going to face difficulties. The book’s storyline is pretty straightforward: it starts at the top of the slope and rolls down until it reaches the psychological and social bottom. This leaves little room for plot development or empathy for characters, exacerbated by the fact that Ballard’s protagonists are always psychological roles rather than fully formed characters. But by matching form with content, Wheatley accepts the book for what it is and just runs with it. This surely has to be the right approach, but it is scarcely surprising that a number of reviews have criticised the film for a lack of focus and narrative coherence, monotonous repetition, and an emphasis on style over plot and characterisation.

This movie will lose a lot of people along the way, but then again, as far back as 1962, Ballard wrote a manifesto for a new form of science fiction, ‘Which Way to Inner Space?’, in which he insisted that ‘from now on, most of the hard work will fall, not on the writer, but on the readers. The onus is on them to accept a more oblique narrative style, understated themes, private symbols and vocabularies.’ This is exactly what Wheatley wants from his audience. Since I saw the film, it has been rattling around inside my head. Scenes where it wasn’t clear just what was going on have come into focus, and subtle connections and hidden depths have started to appear.

Opinions will differ as to whether or not Wheatley’s adaptation of High-Rise adds to Ballard’s legacy, or indeed whether or not it’s good cinema. Personally, I’m glad Wheatley made it, I’m glad I saw it and I definitely intend seeing it again.

High-Rise stars Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss. It is directed by Ben Wheatley, with a screenplay by Amy Jump and a score by Clint Mansell. It is produced by Jeremy Thomas. The movie will go on general release in the UK on 11 March 2016. No announcement has been made concerning international release.

 ..: Elsewhere on Ballardian: the Films of J.G. Ballard

+ Pedro Groppo on Empire of the Sun
+ Cat Hope on Crash
+ Jonathan Weiss and Simon Sellars on The Atrocity Exhibition
+ Solveig Nordlund and Rick McGrath on Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude (Low-Flying Aircraft)

Tom Hiddleston reads from Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J.G. Ballard, 1967–2008. London High-Rise premiere.

high-rise storyboard

Wilder whispers to Royal. Storyboard from High-Rise.

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