Ben Wheatley's High-Rise (out in UK cinemas yesterday) is a 41-years-after-the-event film adaptation of JG Ballard's novel of the same name. Ballard's novel came out in 1975, a year in which the United Kingdom chose to stay in the EEC and Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party. The age of loud lapels, hilarious sideburns and hideous wallpaper - a decade so frequently depicted as decadent in our culture that Ballard's and Wheatley's lurid vision of a dystopian 1970s is only slightly an exaggeration. Where the book envisages a future a few years down the line - the mid-80s, perhaps, a time of rampant greed and capitalism, a dog-eat-dog world; how inaccurate that prediction turned out to be - Wheatley makes a very canny move in setting his film in the year of the book's appearance. This film, then, is a kind of alternate-1975, a 1975 in a bubble universe...yet it retains Ballard's haunting predictions about where we could be going next. Wheatley's film looks to the past, the incipient growth of high-rise tower blocks and brutalist architecture, but is poised in an uneasy balance with regard to the future.
This balancing act is strangely reflected in the film's structure. Opening (as the novel does) with an iconic first line ("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") sets the bar high, and Wheatley duly rises to the challenge with a prelude soaked in black humour, in which we see Laing (Tom Hiddleston) settling in cosily amid the debris of a wrecked "apartment building", leg of mutt rotating gently on a spit (dog-eat-dog world, geddit?). As Ballard does, Wheatley then flashes back to the main events of the story, depicting Laing arriving at the High-Rise and exploring the building and its occupants before everything descends into chaos. There are one or two oddities about this which I imagine may infuriate those who expect more standard film pacing. The film reaches a crazed fever-pitch almost slap-bang in the middle of its two-hour running time, and then slowly unspools after that, dealing with the mopping-up and the desperate scavenging and the fallout. There is no "climax" in the traditional sense. While this means that many of the film's best moments occur in the middle rather than at the end - which, as I say, might feel a bit off for some viewers - it doesn't do much damage to Wheatley's ever-more-disturbing cocktail of images.
And what a cocktail that is. Wheatley has a fine visual eye for both the dreamlike and the flamboyant, but with a generally more refined sense than, say, Tarantino for when he ought to rein things back in. That is not to say that this is a particularly restrained film; it isn't. But it's easy to imagine how it could have gone just that step too far overboard, and Wheatley largely avoids that. The tower block itself is stunningly shot, moody sunsets gleaming behind its rigid outline; from the chaotic "underworld" - all steam and red lighting - to the spacious vistas at the top, he has a firm grasp of what his visuals should be doing. Aerial shots of the Eden-like gardens on the top floor - where the building's architect, Royal, dwells with his wife - make for a powerful contrast with the ugly greyness of the rest of London's skyline, somewhere off in the distance. The crazed, orgiastic parties of the higher classes - those who live on the top floors - are very well-rendered, all Georgian finery and violins, but Wheatley's gift for the sinister remains in full force, complemented by Clint Mansell's outstanding score. The suicidal fall of Monro, a young doctor diagnosed with a terminal illness, from the 39th floor down to head-crunching contact with a car bonnet at street level, is a bravura piece of filmmaking: exquisitely done slo-mo, intercut with the loud and raucous partying going on up above. About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters; how well they understood its human position.
The film is full of such memorable moments, but it would be rewarding now to turn our attention to the script, by Wheatley's long-time collaborator and spouse Amy Jump. The occasional line may ring false, or the occasional joke suffer, but by and large this is an excellent bit of writing, which takes most of the mytho-realism of Ballard's world and distils it into a distinctively visual form. High-Rise always owed a huge debt to the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel - mankind's folly in trying to reach the stars, and then his barbarism when everything falls to pieces, and indeed there is something of a sense that everybody is straining to reach upwards in this story. Social climbers all. The architect, Royal (the damning indictment of good old monarchical Britain could hardly be more obvious), is "trying to colonise the sky", we are told at one point; "and who can blame him, when you look at what's happening at street level". The film presents us with a powerful cornucopia of individuals trying to escape from themselves, desperately trying to find their place higher up.
Though some of these individuals get lost in the mix, for the most part they are vividly drawn. Richard Wilder (a great turn from Luke Evans) is a brash, at points animalistic documentary filmmaker who lives on the lower floors with his family, and descends into madness and mania as the building implodes around him. Jeremy Irons is excellent as Anthony Royal, the god-like figure whose imagination conceived of this grand project. And Hiddleston is at his very best as Laing, a role in which his penchant for detachment serves him particularly well. The women are given less attention, perhaps, though they are equally good; Sienna Miller is terribly effective as Charlotte, and Elizabeth Moss brings great pathos to the role of Wilder's heavily pregnant wife Helen. None of them are especially likeable, which in turn reminds me of another great work set in a tower - Peake's Gormenghast, in which all of the figures are mad in some way or another. This high-rise block is afflicted by extreme indifference and selfishness; nobody cares what happens two floors above or two floors below them, only what is going on around them on their own floor. This extends to the treatment of children, in which Ballard and Wheatley borrow a leaf out of Lord of the Flies; we are told they frequently urinate in the pool, we see them tossing ice cream onto the bonnet of a bigwig's car moments after a story about baboons throwing shit at one another, and Royal's bastard son Toby is every bit as selfish as the adults. There is no innocence in the high-rise.
This lends itself to a Freudian reading of Laing, Royal and Wilder of course - as the ego, superego and the id respectively; Royal attempts to impose order on the society (for the high-rise is a society, if only in microcosm) that he has created; Wilder's atavistic instincts start to make it all fray; and Laing is frequently the bridge between them. But that doesn't quite hang together, because it is in many respects the doing of most of the upper floors that everything falls apart. Far more convincing, for me, is the idea of masks and deception as being at the heart of this story. Laing is a relatively open, honest type at the start - he is told he looks better with his clothes off than on, a clear indication that nakedness of all kinds suits him; later we hear he is "hiding in plain sight", in stark contrast to everybody else's outfits and assumed performances. But as time goes on, we see how terrifying a figure like Laing really is; his genuine sincerity becomes emotional detachment, observing the horrors of what goes on around him and, for the most part, doing little about it; he too becomes masked - beating a man almost to death in a supermarket to win the last tin of paint, paint which is later daubed over his face like a mask. It's another of Wheatley's virtuoso shots, as we see the thick blue treacle smeared over half of Hiddleston's visage like tribal markings: the need for disguise, to escape oneself, has infected Laing too.
This is not a pleasant film; it's frequently horrible, with all kinds of animal abuse, human abuse, physical and sexual violence, gore and psychologically disturbing motifs. For some this will be too much, or they may take offence at Wheatley's sleek and swish depiction of such things in a kaleidoscopic montage rather than earthy realism. But I found it a visually thrilling, intellectually stimulating and magnetically repulsive depiction of where our selfishness can take us. Ballard's vision of a dystopian high-rise is perhaps more apt than ever, in the year in which a property developer has a genuine chance of ruling the United States of America, so-called "Leader of the Free World". As I descended from the top floor of the ultra-swish cinema complex in which I viewed High-Rise, past countless shopping chains and gleaming restaurants, out into the cold night air and past huddled, homeless figures sleeping rough on park benches and car park entrances, I felt properly, viscerally sickened. Art that affects you in that way should be treasured, even if it is not a treasure that brings you joy. Not all that is gold glitters in the same fashion, after all.