Once declared as “unfilmable”, the late J.G. Ballard’s critically acclaimed novel High-Rise has been in developmental hell for decades. In the hands of Sightseers helmer Ben Wheatley and wife-turned-writing partner Amy Jump, this complex tale of class society has finally made it to the big screen with a cast including Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller and Luke Evans.
New to the luxury high-rise, Dr Robert Laing (Hiddleston) must get used to the systematic new world he’s entered upon moving onto its 25th floor. Created by architect Anthony Royal (Irons), the multi-story building has turned into its own self-contained class structure that is beginning to crumble from within. Laing – an inconsequential pawn in an ever-growing power struggle between the snobby rich folk on the upper floors and the disgruntled working class who live below – is our eyes and ears into a civil war which rips apart an unconventional society.
Doused in dark-ishly blunt humour, and unceremoniously stylish, High-Rise is unquestionably Wheatley-like. A previously low-budget worker, the director has bitten off a lot with Ballard’s heavy going read, and although it’s certainly flawed in its substance, its spectacular wildness offers much to like.
Like a psychedelic trip without the drug use, it’s wonderfully lavish and yet utterly surreal. Like any great battle, you have your main players: Hiddleston’s Laing appears the perplexed bystander wading his way through the wreckage, whilst Evans’ boisterous Richard Wilder is Team Poor’s rampaging defender against Royal and co’s snuggly cash-lovers, and Sienna Miller’s Charlotte is the neutral-minded warrior swooping in, out and in-between each way you turn. It’s messy, frantic and just out-right barmy.
An array of super cool set pieces awash in super slow mo, or topped with a haunting rendition of ABBA’s fab tune S.O.S. leaves you feeling like you’re on one almighty ride, yet never always knowing why. The social and political undertones that sweep through Ballard’s writings are there, yet you can’t help but feel – as Wheatley’s latest descends into its final hour – that its over-arching narrative gets lost within the madness of it all.
Unsurprisingly proving divisive, its strange nature and cut-throat dialogue will not be for everyone. Though its style trumps its heavy substance, there is still a lot to like about High-Rise. It’s weird, frustratingly weird, but ultimately, and commendably, adventurously weird.