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Posts Tagged ‘Sienna Miller’

Ben Wheatley is a director who has been making a name for himself for the last few years, more often than not working on low-budget genre movies of various kinds. In hindsight it looks like a dead cert that the mainstream was always going to come calling on him – you could argue this happened when he was recruited to direct two high-profile episodes of the BBC’s premier Saturday night sci-fi-comedy show – and with a talent as singular as this, the question is always whether they’ll be able to retain what makes them so special under the unforgiving eye of major studio oversight.

Well, I think we have something of an answer, in the shape of Wheatley’s adaptation of the noted J.G. Ballard novel High-Rise, which has received the widest release of any of his films to date. The book was published over forty years ago and has arguably proved quite influential ever since, but all previous attempts to be bring it directly to the screen have foundered.

high-rise-poster

From what we see and hear on-screen, the film retains the very-near-future setting of the novel – which in this case means some point in a 1976 that never actually happened. Tom Hiddlestone plays Laing, a doctor who as the story starts is just moving into an exclusive new housing development, a huge tower block that seems to exist at a remove from the rest of civilisation. He soon befriends several of the other residents (played by Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, and Luke Evans) and even makes the acquaintance of the architect of the building (Jeremy Irons), who lives in seclusion at the very top of the tower.

Initially all is well in the high-rise, with all the inhabitants enjoying the various amenities at their disposal. Soon, however, tensions start to build over seemingly innocuous things – access to the swimming pool, demands upon the building’s power grid – and these snowball into disputes that soon spin out of control. Open hostilities soon break out between the different social groups, as the amenities fail and the building sinks into squalour and misery. Where will it all end? One thing is certain: despite the architect’s great hopes, life in these towers is far from paradise…

Well, the high-rise itself may not be quite as rectilinear as Ballard himself envisaged (honestly, if you had a drink every time Ballard uses the word in the novel you’d probably pass out within the first few chapters), but in every other way this seems to be to be a highly impressive and very faithful adaptation. The structure of the book survives intact, which I didn’t expect, and if the characters remain a little more articulate throughout their degeneration, that’s only to be expected. The central conceit of the novel – that within the civilised exterior of the tower block, horror reigns, something which the outside world remains totally oblivious of – is also preserved, although this is remains something you have to kind of go with.

Anyone unfamiliar with the novel might be expecting a sort of narrative-driven action-horror somewhat in the vein of The Raid, as Laing and his companions battle to survive against the other tribes of the high-rise, but this is really not that kind of a film. The focus is much more on the way that all the inhabitants are complicit in the savage anarchy that consumes the building, willing participants, and the way that it is an oddly more honest expression of the normal social forces at work in modern society. One of the brilliancies of the book is the way that it isn’t really a clumsy metaphor for the class system – everyone is very middle-class, a doctor or an architect or something in the media.

The emphasis on mood and small details of character appears to be a perfect fit for Wheatley’s own sensibility: few directors can bring encroaching madness to the screen with same degree of carefree nonchalance, and naturally he gets very nearly free reign in that area here. The film’s excursions into surreal black comedy also suit him perfectly – at one point a group of senior residents, dressed in blood-stained rags, have a committee meeting where they discuss driving out the lower inhabitants, converting the lower floors into a golf course, slaughtering the building’s animals for food, and lobotomising troublemakers, and it’s impossible to see where Ballard’s vision ends and Wheatley’s begins.

Wheatley brings it all to the screen with his customary skill and control of sound and image. (One unexpected but rather brilliant touch is the use of ABBA’s S.O.S as a musical motif throughout the film, although one wonders if Benny and Bjorn were quite aware of the images their masterpiece would be playing on top of when they allowed its use.) Seeing the story brought to the screen in quite this way also brought home to me just how influential it has arguably been – you can surely see elements of High-Rise in Cronenberg’s Shivers, and also in the nightmarish city-block dystopia of the Judge Dredd strip.

One curious amendation to the novel comes at the very end of the film, when part of a speech by Margaret Thatcher is heard, praising free-market capitalism. Prior to this point the film hasn’t been explicitly political at all, although you can certainly see how Thatcher’s ‘no such thing as society’ beliefs could be relevant to the goings-on in the high rise. That said, it feels as if it’s there just to drive a point home, but the actual point remains a little obscure, and one wouldn’t usually expect something quite so on-the-nose from Wheatley or his regular co-writer Amy Jump.

Whether this qualifies as a serious wobble or not is probably down to your personal taste and political views, but the rest of the film is very impressive – perhaps a bit too cerebral and artful to totally engage the emotions, but made with enormous skill and intelligence. Followers of both Ballard and Wheatley should be very satisfied with the end product.

 

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