Tuesday, October 13, 2015

'High-Rise' (2015) directed by Ben Wheatley [London Film Festival 2015]

“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”
J.G. Ballard's 1975 novel High-Rise deserves a top-class cinematic adaptation. Aside from having one of the all-time greatest opening lines, it's a marvellous feat of imagination. Ballard's setting is a futuristic tower block in which every human comfort can be found. Aside from chic, modernist living spaces: the building features a supermarket, a gym, a swimming pool, a school - almost as if you never have to leave.

This society-in-a-bottle quickly begins to disintegrate. Power cuts plague the lower floors, planting seeds of discontent. All too soon the residents of the building; lower, middle and upper, are engaged in literal class warfare. Veiled threats snowball into violence and suddenly everyone is giving into their primal urges; the elevator shafts and corridors of the high-rise becoming an orgy of mutilation, rape and murder.

Our protagonist is Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a recent arrival on the 25th floor. Recently bereaved, he desires insulation from the rest of the world and hopes to find it in the anonymity of the tower block. Detached, dispassionate and unfailingly polite, we learn about this world through his eyes. An educated middle class professional, he's able to move between the upper and lower class apartments, meeting both top-floor resident and reclusive architect of the building Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and lowly second floor political agitant and documentary film-maker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans).

We first meet the building as a model of order and sanity but it's not long before the cracks begin to show. Whether it be a smashed bottle of wine falling from an upper deck, disagreements over blocked rubbish chutes and annoying power failures, the writing is on the wall. As if heeding the second law of thermodynamics, entropy kicks in and soon we're off into into dog-eating territory.

I recently took an architectural tour around the Barbican Estate in Central London and while watching this I couldn't help but remember what I'd learned. The magnificently realised tower in High-Rise is built to the same modernist aesthetics as the Barbican, with both the fictional Royal and real-life firm Chamberlin, Powell and Bon trying to achieve the same goal: a housing development that caters to the residents' every need.

Like Ballard's building, the Barbican Estate sports with libraries, shops, gardens, sports facilities, schools and so on. Both structures are carefully designed in order to impose a top-down social vision upon the residents; the desired endpoint a friendly, happy and cohesive community. 

Both projects have proved to be failures; though the Barbican Estate never descended into murderous anarchy it ended up as an eerily quiet ghost town, the expected crowds populating the aerial walkways never materialising. Now the Barbican isn't sought after because of its strong communal bonds, but because it's an oasis of silence in Central London, where a contemporary Dr Laing can keep to himself in his soundproof box without having to deal with the smoky rumblings of the city that encircles him.

Ballard's vision of a building where each resident has their individuality sanded away until they fit into a pre-defined nook, and the failures that would inevitably arise from it, was prescient in 1975. But in 2015 we know that this style of living doesn't work - modern architects tend to work backwards, observing human behaviour than designing buildings around that. This makes High-Rise a prediction of a future that's already in the past, which inevitably saps a little venom from Ballard's scenario.

Still, by any standards this is a magnificent bit of cinema. After the excellent yet relatively small-scale productions of Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England, Wheatley clearly relishes working with a noticeably higher budget, going all out with production design and ambitious effects shots.

If I had to choose ten memorable shots from the London Film Festival, High-Rise would account for most of them. Whether it's the flesh being peeled from a skull rendered in anatomically precise detail, a super slow-motion shot of a body hitting a car bonnet or simply Hiddleston's face spattered with grey paint (as if he's merging with the building), the film lodges in the head: every frame carefully considered, every bit of scenery complementing the performances within, every semi-period costume patterned and coloured to perfection.

It's also design porn, so long as you have an appreciation of brutalism. The high rise might be a symbol of authoritarian control and class divide, but goddamn it's beautiful. The apartments have spires of naked concrete jutting through the middle, which feeds into a gently serrated exterior, crowned with a cantilevered set of balconies that scream confidence and permanence. Even the elegantly retro typefaces are carefully chosen, emulating the creme de la creme of 70s modernism.

Performance-wise, Hiddleston is excellent as a malleable man who's never entirely present. You sense that he's willing to be moulded by his environment, sacrificing his individuality to avoid personal responsibility. Also excellent is Luke Evans in a career best performance, brewing up a heady mix of rugby masculinity, fuzzy sideburns and testosterone. It's Jeremy Irons that get the best lines though, clearly loving saying killer lines like "This is my party, and I shall be the one who decides if someone gets lobotomised".

My only criticism is a slightly jumbled third act. Arguably this jagged narrative reflects the societal breakdown, but cross-cutting three or four narratives inevitably means a loss of focus, especially in comparison to the tightly-reined in opening third. I never lost the thread, but occasionally it's difficult to work out who's kidnapping whom, or which floor a certain character is on.

With each feature Ben Wheatley proves himself as one of the most exciting contemporary British directors. High-Rise, in keeping with his other work, is stylish, thoughtful, disturbing and darkly funny - and easily does justice to Ballard's vision. Whatever Wheatley cooks up next I'll be there opening night.

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