Tuesday 15 March 2016

High-Rise (UK/Belgium 2015: Dir Ben Wheatley)

While Ben Wheatley remains one of this country's more interesting film directors, his decision to take on the 'unfilmable' JG Ballard novel 'High Rise' where others have failed (adaptations by Bruce (Withnail &I ) Robinson and Canadian director Vincenzo Natali are just two of the past attempts to bring it to screen life) seems like a step too far, or a mis-step at least, on his CV.

The first problem with High-Rise is the source material itself. Ballard was a great writer of ideas, but not necessarily a great novelist. The central theme of the book - that of a building which because of its very size, structure and capacity for anonymity facilitates a swift and comprehensive breakdown of the moral codes of those living within it - is also its main theme, applied again and again in the text. It's an allegorical one at that. Literary allegory does not generally transfer well to film, so the repetition of the theme of societal breakdown in the events on screen soon tires. It's a bit like ordering a three course meal at a restaurant where all the courses are the same. What Ballard did achieve was the sense of scale involved, from the design of the building with its vast mid floor shopping and leisure facilities, to the sheer numbers involved in the high-rise riots. Wheatley simply doesn't have the budget for this - his sets look cheap and some of the CGI is just plain poor.

There is also the issue of the film's setting. Wheatley has side-stepped the problem that, in today's world, the war in the high-rise would not have remained self contained because of social media, by locating the film in an imprecise mobile phone-free 1970s and in an unspecified place (not necessarily London, where the book was based). While this move solves a lot of issues, it raises others. The film's rather mocking recreation of the decade that fashion forgot - all hipster trousers and floral tops - has already been done to death in shows like Life on Mars and a myriad of movies from Boogie Nights to The Look of Love. There's nothing new in the look of High-Rise, and Wheatley has failed to achieve the uneasy mix of brutalist settings and garish costumes in Kurbick's 1971 movie A Clockwork Orange, a film which hangs around this one like a ghost.

Wheatley's films have to date been relatively small affairs formed from the director's own ideas, about odd, often unlikeable people living fraught lives while events unravel around them. Although that could also be said to be true about High-Rise, this is a different type of film for him. First it's a relatively faithful adaptation of a novel. It has a much bigger cast with some star names, and a wider if cost-restricted canvas (perhaps the combined wages of Tom Hiddleston, Elisabeth Moss, Jeremy Irons and Sienna Guillory didn't leave a lot over for the production budget, which is a shame because their roles could equally have been taken by unknown actors, so - deliberately- bland are their performances). Amy Jump's script, so good in A Field in England, feels trapped in Ballard's leaden prose, and that dark and subtle humour which has been a common and successful element of Wheatley's past movies has been sacrificed for some fairly deadly one liners and visual 'gags' lifted straight from the pages of the book.

High-Rise is also a mess. The book's depiction of the gradual rise of the madness in the building has been traded in for a montage scene about half way through the film which transforms the residents from mild bickerers to sex crazed savages - we then get a further hour of 'action' which is neither exciting nor particularly shocking (David Cronenberg's 1975 movie Shivers, also inspired by Ballard's book, managed this so much better). In the Q&A I saw accompanying the film Reece Sheersmith was complaining that much of his role as Steele, the crazed dentist, was dropped from the final cut. While I know that this happens when editing films, nevertheless I do not consider this a good sign.

Finally I suppose 'High Rise' remains an unfilmable book largely because many years have passed since its publication, and the original prescience of its subject matter is now normalised. We have high rises all around us these days. Government housing policy mixes the rich with the less rich, with developers building separate entrances for the 'haves' and 'have mores' without any obvious signs of resident wars breaking out. In our capitalist times such accommodation polices aren't seen as segregation but rather opportunity. So Wheatley's film is too little too late, a toothless romp with little to say, overlong and uneven, and, yes, rather low-rent.

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