J.G. Ballard’s brutishly prescient novel High-Rise may have been penned in 1975, but this slick and glistening update shows that the author’s dissections of a society in decay are as frighteningly relevant now as they were when the book first hit the shelves.
Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a stylish new luxury apartment block, and all is well. But as social division begins to rankle between the wealthy elite on the upper floors and those below, and pitched battles lead to electricity failures, Laing’s microcosmic world shuts itself in and begins to disintegrate into an orgy of violence.
Husband/wife team Ben Wheatley (director) and Amy Jump (screenwriter) are no strangers to dark material, with shockers like Kill List and A Field In England gracing their portfolio. As such, they’re a natural fit to the harshness of Ballard’s prose. Jump deftly weaves in and out of reality, past and present, capturing Ballard’s distinctive dialogue with the clarity of academia.
Hiddleston, too, has precisely the kind of cold, polished marble exterior that makes him foundational to the apartment block itself. It is an extension of him, and he moves through it effortlessly. The casting agent deserves a medal for Jeremy Irons’ fit to dual architect/social philosopher Royal, and outside bets that pay off, like James Purefoy’s despicable playboy Pangbourne.
Being that the subject material is so dated, women inevitably get the short end of the stick, though Sienna Miller and Elisabeth Moss play their dichotomous roles of mother/whore to perfection. Jump maintains Ballard’s treatment of the woman as product and belonging, staying true to the greater message, but lashes out with late-game violence that empowers her sex.
Wheatley’s polish is the film’s greatest asset. Nothing in his oeuvre remotely resembles this level of sheen and splendour. Even the violence is operatic, grandiose – a man’s ignoble end is refracted endlessly in the labyrinthine coils of a kaleidoscope; another plummets in angelic slow-motion from a party turned chaos. Dog lovers, beware. Class divisions, too, are realised with blatant visual motif, often so baroque as to be quietly laughable.
A classic adaptation flaw rises when they press the point. Invoking Thatcher before the credits roll feels cheap, a quick and efficient way of distancing the filmmakers from their monstrous creations. The phantom of her politics haunts the high-rise long before her voice is heard; in her absence, the film would be all the more chilling for its proximity to the present.
With a vicious streak a mile wide, Wheatley’s gleaming monstrosity places him comfortably in the realm of Nicolas Winding Refn, another master of discomfort enamoured with social surgery. Both directors, however, are far more focused on exposing scar tissue than seeing it heal. Hope isn’t in your tenancy agreement.
High-Rise opens in cinemas on Thursday August 18.