Neurologist Dr. Laing (Hiddleston) moves into a pristine tower block in the shiny 1970s, only to see the new society crumble into age-old violence.
While J.G. Ballard is seven years gone, and the source for this film 40 years old, it still feels alarmingly now. The future he imagined in the 1970s, with its affluenza and anger, couldn’t feel more relevant today.
It's crammed with dreamlike moments, like the image of Hiddleston's paint-splattered face. It's as if Dulux had made an STD commercial.
Ballard’s book was published in the year Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party, before the Winter Of Discontent saw rubbish rotting on British streets amid industrial disputes, before greed became nakedly good. But the novel seemed to foresee all that was to come, and the first of the many smart decisions in this pungent adaptation is to maintain its period setting. It must have been tempting to modernise it. But as ridiculous as the cars, lapels and shagpile sideburns are, retaining the novel’s era grants High-Rise a compelling air of tragedy. The people in this tower block are buying a bit of the future, but they’re never going to escape the past.
Although designed to be exciting and people-friendly, the brutalist architecture of post-War regeneration came to represent ugly failure. High-Rise captures the excitement of that sleek, new way of living, and then takes malicious delight in its destruction. This film is both beautiful and grubby; it bathes your eyes but leaves a sticky residue. From the ethereal elegance of an aristocratic French fancy-dress party (costumes wrapped around warped souls), to the lithe musculature of a naked Hiddleston, to the striking image of his paint-splattered face — as if Dulux made an STD commercial — it is crammed with dreamlike (or at times nightmarish) moments. The chilly eroticism is familiar from producer Jeremy Thomas’ other Ballard adaptation, Crash, but this is more anarchic than Cronenberg’s controversial cult classic.
This is a strength and weakness. By staying so faithful to the material, screenwriter Amy Jump and director Ben Wheatley capture its spirit without quite making High-Rise consistently gripping as a story. Once we are firmly established with the concrete erection and its dubious denizens, incident upon incident of unpleasantness pile up to become almost monotonous. But it’s hard to know how one could wrestle Ballard’s book into a conventional thriller without losing the jagged edge that buries it in the mind. And Wheatley and DP Laurie Rose conjure such restless, arresting images that even if your attention to the plot wanders, you will still want to watch.
Wheatley doesn’t allow the larger scale — this must be his biggest-budget picture by millions — to blunt the unpredictability and energy he showed in Kill List et al. Hiddleston, highest-profile star yet, manages a very tricky balancing act, as the cool observer drawn deeper — or higher — into mayhem, while Sienna Miller’s seductive aide and Luke Evans’ bolshy filmmaker are wonderfully unrepentant. This is a dazzling, troubling, ugly and unsettling film. Ballardian, then: fucked up and up and up.
Batshit crazy. Don’t expect a thriller in the seat-edge sense, but you will be thrilled — and repulsed — by this bold, faithful adaptation of Ballard’s ever-prescient picture of First World strife.