'High-Rise': TIFF Review

High Rise Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Never mind the Ballards, this multi-story misfire is a disaster movie on many levels.

British cult director Ben Wheatley adapts J.G. Ballard's legendary 1970s novel about the savage breakdown of social order inside a giant residential apartment block.

A visionary dystopian fable about civil war breaking out among the residents of a super-sized London skyscraper, the cult British sci-fi author J.G. Ballard's 1975 novel High-Rise has been a stalled passion project for producer Jeremy Thomas for decades. It was once deemed "unfilmable", but so was Ballard's Crash, which Thomas and David Cronenberg successfully molded into a highbrow erotic thriller two decades ago.

Feeling ever more prophetic in an era when overpriced London penthouse apartments are seen as stealth weapons in the class war, High-Rise should have been a perfect fit for Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump, the critically revered husband-and-wife team who have established a strong screen voice with genre-warping comedy-horror hits including Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England. But sadly, the duo come unstuck here, perhaps overwhelmed by the biggest budget and starriest cast of their career so far, including Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons.

World premiered to great buzz in Toronto last night after being shunned by Cannes, High-Rise is a rich and fascinating mess. But it is a mess. Wheatley and Jump have turned the lean, lucid architecture of Ballard's prose into a baggy, disjointed, sprawling grand folly of a movie. The biggest disappointment is an almost total lack of menace and humor, key selling points in all their previous films. Commercial prospects will depend more on brand loyalty to author, director and star than on the movie's stand-alone merits. Fortunately for Thomas and his team, that still adds up to potentially large numbers.

In fairness, High-Rise looks magnificent. The setting, a colossal new brutalist concrete skyscraper on the edge of an unnamed London-like city, is a gorgeous piece of production design. The fashions, hairstyles, cars, TV shows and color palette are all pitch-perfect mid 1970s, in knowing homage to the novel and the cinema of the period. There are inevitable echoes of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange here, plus overt nods to more obscure British cult movies including Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment.

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Hiddleston stars as Laing, a neurologist, newly installed in a stark bachelor pad on the 25th floor. His upstairs neighbor Charlotte (Sienna Miller), a bohemian single mother, instantly shows a keen sexual interest in him. A few floors below sits the cluttered family apartment where Wilder (Luke Evans), a charismatic alpha-male documentary maker seething with barely concealed rage, lives with his heavily pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss).

Soon after Laing's arrival, tensions in the building begin to boil over. There are fractious confrontations over petty points of protocol, power outages and shared access to sports facilities. Meanwhile, Laing is summoned to the palatial penthouse apartment of the project's patrician architect, Royal (Irons). Strolling among the horses and sheep in his lush rooftop garden, Royal explains how he envisioned the skyscraper as a grand social experiment, a "crucible for change." Be careful what you wish for.

Before long, the building descends into anarchy. Loud parties escalate into pagan sex orgies, violent attacks, ritual killings and open warfare between different floors. The increasingly unhinged Wilder sets himself up as revolutionary leader for the lower orders, mimicking the Che Guevara poster on his wall. Meanwhile, Royal and his cronies initially behave like aloof aristocrats during the French Revolution. But they have at least partially orchestrated this chaos, even as it threatens to engulf them. Caught in the middle, Laing initially plays the detached observer, but he can not avoid the rising tide of insanity.

There is a goldmine of rich material here, all beautifully shot, but fatally lacking in focus or momentum. More than a dozen secondary characters, some sketched in barely a few lines, wander aimlessly in and out of the story. Savage crimes occur, including rape and murder, but they are quickly forgotten as the plot veers off down another blind alley. Empathy with the emotionally detached protagonists becomes impossible, partly because little ever seems to be truly at stake. At one point Royal claims his crucial error was giving the building's residents too many choices, and the same might be said of Wheatley and Jump, who seem swamped by the sheer scale of the chaos they have created.

It is tempting but wrong to read High-Rise as a crude architectural allegory for the British class system, in the tradition of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, with aristocrats in the upper floors and workers down below. While that subtext is certainly present in the film, Ballard's key interest always lay more in the thinly veiled psychosis of the professional middle classes, and how they might turn on each other in times of social crisis. Jump and Wheatley make a some token political points, ending with a sarcastic quote about the merits of free-market capitalism from future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose career was on the rise when the novel was published. Ironically, Ballard was a fan of Thatcher, welcoming her plans to "Americanise" the stuffy traditions of British life.

High-Rise contains some brilliant visual flourishes, including hallucinatory scenes of Hiddleston dancing in dreamlike slow motion, a dramatic suicide leap from an upper-floor balcony, and a macabre recurring close-up of skin being peeled from a human skull. As with all of Wheatley's films, music also has a strong and purposeful presence. Clint Mansell's lustrous retro-classical score bursts with ironic good cheer, and sits comfortably alongside several period-friendly songs, including an emotionally raw remake of the vintage Abba hit SOS by Portishead.

Rarely have so many classy ingredients added up to such a muted, muddled, multi-storey mess. Of course, it is still better to make an ambitious failure than a boring success. A true disaster movie, in all senses, High-Rise is ultimately an ambitious, brilliant failure.

Production company: Recorded Picture Company

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, Jeremy Irons, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes

Director: Ben Wheatley

Screenwriter: Amy Jump, based on the novel by JG Ballard

Cinematographer: Laurie Rose

Editors: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley

Production designer: Mark Tildesley

Composer: Clint Mansell

Producer: Jeremy Thomas

Sales company: HanWay Films


Rated 18A, 112 minutes