LFF 2015: High-Rise
by Ben Diamond
Oh dear oh dear. I was really looking forward to this. Ben Wheatley has been rising in stature over the last five years, starting with his debut, Down Terrace (his best), shot on a shoestring budget, and following it up with tales of the darker part of the English psyche – Kill List, Sightseers and A Field In England. Now he’s been given a proper budget and has chosen to adapt JG Ballard’s treasured novel High-Rise, which concerns the breakdown of social order in a block of flats for well-to-do professionals, who revolt against each other, and the building itself, which possesses its own sinister qualities and acts as a sort of superego for the collective hive mind of the residents. A bit sci-fi, but not that sci-fi really, considering similar incidents were occurring at the time Ballard was writing the novel. For someone with a fearsome reputation for pre-cog, including making the prophesy in the 1960s that Ronald Reagan would one day become president, this was more a reflection of what was happening, rather than what could happen.
Which all sounds like it might translate into a brilliant film. I love Ben Wheatley but I feel he has simply picked source material that is too difficult to put onto the screen without losing Ballard’s intellectual verve. I applaud his ambition. But it simply doesn’t work. Wheatley’s early work has been characterised by his gift for characterisation and dialogue, and his ability to create real menace and tension onscreen with nothing but a conversation. In Ballard’s book, I feel most of the interesting ideas come from characters’ internal dialogues, not from external actions, which are actually fairly violent and repetitive. Given a big budget, Wheatley appears to leave behind all the ideas about how the atmosphere of violence and jealousy of the High-Rise itself came to be, assuming it’s a given, and that we have all read the source material and understand it anyway, instead focusing on elaborate set designs and set pieces, which admittedly look stunning, but feel hollow without the ideas behind them being explained properly.
I really wanted this film to work. In the end I feel Wheatley may have panicked and come to realise that, indeed, much of the message of the novel had been lost in the heady mix of visual flair and violent montages. All of the characters from the book, (importantly) all living in different parts of the building and with different agendas, perspectives and attitudes, are thrown into a melting pot where they all blend into a homogenous, violent whole. Perhaps this is why an audio clip of a Thatcher speech is shamefully tacked on to the end of the film, to give it some sort of intellectual weight which it had been lacking for the previous hour and forty minutes. That might have been acceptable in This is England, but for a film devoid of social and political context up to then, it felt like a shortcut. Even The Fall’s ‘Industrial Estate’, which plays over the end credits (in many ways the perfect track full stop, but certainly the perfect track for this film) couldn’t save this one. The less said about the montage where Portishead cover ABBA’s ‘SOS’, the better.