Made in Britain: High Rise
I like Ben Wheatley films. Hell, I even gave the nod to Kill List for my film of the year, and I rated Down Terrace quite highly too. Unlike Droid, I even found something to like in Sightseers. However, I found A Field in England to be a risible load of art student toss, and I’ve got nothing good to say about it. Unfortunately, for me, I don’t like J. G. Ballard, believing him to be probably the most overrated author Britain’s produced in the last 100 years. So, it was with somewhat mixed feelings that I sat down to watch Wheatley’s adaptation of Ballard’s famously unfilmable High Rise- a movie that spent the better part of 30 years failing to make it to the screen.
Contains social commentary (groan) and spoilers below
Tom Hiddlestone plays Laing, a doctor who has just moved into a flat on the 25th floor of a horrible brutalist apartment block on the outskirts of London. The block is ordered by social status with the poor on the bottom, building all the way up to the super rich elite and ultimately the architect (Jeremy Irons as Royal) hiding out in his penthouse. The block is designed to be completely self-contained with supermarkets, schools and extensive leisure facilities so, in theory, one might never leave the building. Anyhoo, there are serious problems with power, garbage and so on and so forth before everything goes completely to the dogs in an orgy of violence, misanthropy, and cack handed elitism crap.
This is a tough film to review, because in terms of narrative it’s practically incoherent. However, I suspect that a) this is intentional as it’s basically observing insanity, and b) the fault of Ballard anyway. For the record, this is a very standard Ballard idea, being (at the very least) echoed heavily in later novels Cocaine Nights and Supercannes. Nevertheless, there is much to like, and equally much to hate here. It’s been described as divisive, with record walk outs from the cinema (for the whole week it was on), but simultaneously got a massive critical nut stroking. I’m fence siting myself, for reasons that will become apparent.
Firstly, the acting. This is a real hodgepodge, and indicative of the schizophrenic nature of the whole film. On one hand, Hiddlestone is marvelous as Laing, exuding a sense of contained rage and emotional coldness that’s almost perfect for a Ballard hero. Irons is on rare supercilious form (and he gives good sneer), and even Sienna Miller puts in probably her best performance ever as Charlotte. However, quite what the fuck James Purefoy thinks he’s playing at as Pangbourne is a total mystery as is Luke Evans shifting accent as the “revolutionary” Wilder. Most of the other performances are OK, but a nod to Sienna Guillory, whose delivery of the line “Which of you bastards wants to fuck me in the arse?” really has to be seen to be believed. The answer, by the way, is all of them.
High Rise also looks great. Setting it in the 1970’s was a minor stroke of genius, as was using a real tower block outside of Belfast that has the quasi-futuristic brutalist architecture needed. As location work goes, it’s almost perfect, and one of the best that I think I’ve ever seen. The photography is also great (the slow motion suicide is a fine bit of cinematography), and the contrast drawn between the white-clad Royal and the aesthetes on the upper floors with the grimy buggers in shitty brown etc near ground level is stunning unsubtle but suitably effective.
Then there’s the soundtrack. It’s mostly (with one exception that I’ll come to in a moment) era appropriate, and the score by Clint Mansell is outstanding. However, the high point of the movie comes with a horrifying montage set to a Portishead cover version of Abba’s SOS. This sequence is completely gripping with the music serving to heighten and accentuate the really, staggeringly, grim visuals. Top, top film-making.
Unfortunately, that’s it for the positives. I mentioned the Portishead montage, but it feels like practically every bloody scene is a montage of some description- usually involving decadent parties, mindless violence and really grubby sex. This feels incredibly lazy as if Wheatley and Amy Jump (on script duty) felt that they had to cram every single fucking detail of Ballard’s novel into the film. We get the idea very quickly, it’s not exactly subtle, so perhaps a bit of implication would have gone a long fucking way.
Tonally it’s fucking weird. It’s aiming at social satire with a healthy dollop of black comedy, but feels patchy and inconsistent (particularly during the last act), in no doubt due to some crass imagery (Royal’s plans get turned into paper wings to adorn Laing as he’s about to be tossed off the building) . It’s also not as funny as it thinks it is- there are some good lines, such as Laing’s final speech, but all in all the odd moment of wry humour isn’t going to alleviate a scene of gang rape, for example. Furthermore, the film is stuffed full of completely demented characters (Reece Sheersmith’s crazy orthodontist, for example) that don’t really help maintain either the horror or the comedy.
The characters themselves are also somewhat (very) unlikable. I know this is social satire, but Laing is going mad, Wilder is a bastard, the 1% are awful (obviously) and so on and so forth. You don’t root for anyone in this film, because they’re all dreadful and it hurts it. I get that this is as a result of the satire and the Lord of the Flies with adults tone, but it’s hard to really give a fuck, particularly when you know that they could all, er, leave the building at any point.
Finally, a brief word on social commentary, this is one of a number of films I’ve seen recently that piles on the anti-1%-er rhetoric with a trowel.While I get that the world is in a fairly sorry mess, and so on, I’m starting to get a bit sick of it. It feels very much like the smart-aleck kid standing on the sidelines sneering while everyone else gets on with making the best of what we have. It’s not, particularly in this case, especially big and it’s not especially clever- something that’s made worse by closing the film with a hideously misguided Thatcher quote.
Overall, I’m torn. There is much to like here (the Portishead montage really deserves to be in a much better film), but, equally, there’s much to hate. A good summary of it would be “think less stupid Snowpiercer crossed with Shivers”, and that’s about as accurate a guide to the film that I can give. I’m going with 2 changs out of a possible 4, but this isn’t a recommendation, particularly, as both Snowpiercer and Shivers already exist. Really, watch Shivers, which makes much the same point and deals with much the same material as High Rise, but is far more entertaining.
Batshit mental, this film, and I’m not sure that’s in a good way.
Until next time,
Tags: Amy Jump, Batshit Mental, Ben Wheatley, Boobs, Film, Grubby sex, High RIse, J.G. Ballard, James Purefoy, Jeremy Irons, lots and lots of fucking montages, Luke Evans, Made In Britain, Portishead, Reece Sheersmith, Review, Satire, Sienna Guillory, Sienna Miller, Social Commentary, Tom Hiddlestone, Violence
About JarvWorkshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.
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