High-Rise is Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel, and it is deeply unpleasant, if not deeply, deeply unpleasant. (Ideally, I would wish to repeat ‘deeply’ several hundred times, but I do not have the space.) Based on the dystopian notion of tower-block residents regressing into a primitive state once societal norms and the class structure are removed, it sounded promising, like an adult mirroring of Lord of the Flies. But Wheatley is so in love with his own visual style and excesses that all allegory and satire is lost while the violence escalates and women are beaten then raped. Misogyny with social commentary comments on misogyny, but without that it’s just misogyny served up for its entertainment value. That said, after the screening I shared a lift with a group of young men who declared it all ‘absolutely brilliant’, so you pays your money and takes your pick, although if you pays your money for this, I will think rather less of you.
The novel was written in 1975, which is when this is set, and it opens with the tower block’s newest resident, Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), who is sitting on his balcony, blood-splattered and eating dog. The action flashes back three months to the day Laing first moved in. How did he end up that blood-splattered and eating dog? I wanted to know. So this seemed promising too.
We move with Laing into the building which, we discover, is strictly divided along class lines although how this relates to what’s happening in the wider world we don’t know, as we’re never told. The poor working classes inhabit the lower floors. Laing is somewhere in the middle. One floor above lives Charlotte (Sienna Miller), a single mother. Below lives TV documentary maker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his wife, Helen (Elisabeth Moss). The top floors are reserved for the élite and Mr Royal (Jeremy Irons), who resides in an opulent penthouse with his wife (Keeley Hawes) and her horse (A Horse). The men, by the way, are referred to by their surnames — Laing!, Royal!, Wilder! — while the women don’t count like that. They only exist in relation to the men.
The imagery is initially arresting. The block itself is brutalist with a disturbing concrete outcrop at the top. The retro interiors are hyper-stylised and wonderful, with their shag carpets and op-art wallpapers. There is a fantastically decadent party, held on the top floor. As for the soundtrack, it’s often instrumental versions of Abba, which I can live with. But Wheatley does not communicate. Aside from a few power cuts affecting the lower floors, he does not communicate class tension, or even how this caste system works, day to day. (I haven’t read the novel, but have read about the novel, and Ballard is detailed on this. For example, the higher up you are, the closer you can park your car, but we’re not told any of this either.) I was desperate for exposition, for the first time ever, but Wheatley’s directorial style plunges the characters into various situations while we’re simply expected to get on with it, if we can.
And I could not. Wheatley’s not much interested in the narrative, so it’s frequently incoherent, and he’s not much interested in the characters, whom he doesn’t fix in our minds. (I had terrible problems figuring out who was who, particularly with the subsidiary characters, and didn’t care about any of them.) Also, no one starts out ‘normal’ and then degenerates, which would at least provide some kind of arc — they’re all doolally and hateful in the first instance. This is Wheatley’s first major film — after Kill List and Sightseers — and while it does visit some very dark places, it doesn’t have anything to say about inequality or social disorder or capitalism or anything at all. Instead, the tone is one of overegged farce, while the visuals fetishize the mounting rubbish, the marauding gangs, the explosions of violence, the dogs that are either drowned or barbecued, and the woman (Charlotte) who is brutally beaten prior to being raped, then ends up with Mr Royal on the top floor. (Why? No idea.) Laing, meanwhile, gets to have sex with both Helen and Charlotte, because, you know, what are they there for, otherwise?
The performances are all over the place too. Hiddleston, our Eton boy of the moment, is perfectly fine, if somewhat detached, but Evans? It’s as if Oliver Reed has gone mad. And now I am running out of space so can only say if this is an adaptation of Ballard’s book as is, then it’s a vile book, and if it isn’t, then Wheatley has somehow made it vile. Either way, High-Rise is deeply, deeply unpleasant.