Once I heard that Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley were set to write and direct a film of JG Ballard’s High Rise, my excitement levels were as high as the ambitions of the tower block itself. The short novel written in 1975 by one of the world’s most brilliant dystopia-predicting writers is a brooding and cacophonous account of tower block life that becomes more prescient with every passing housing policy that churns out of Westminster. A film version by such a visionary director was surely going to bring Ballard’s sublime urban narrative a visual and aesthetic depth to match.
Well I can say that I wasn’t disappointed. The film’s plot (as far as there is a ‘standard’ plot) revolves around a young doctor who moves into a newly finished tower block. His life intertwines with the other residents including socialites, television professionals, actresses, service staff, children and the architect of the building itself (who lives on the top floor of the tower block). The deep social divisions of the people living there (with the working class at the bottom and the aristocratically-portrayed upper class occupying the upper levels) begin to rupture, and life soon deteriorates into hedonism, self-interest and debauchery. The residents soon find themselves not going to work, ‘living’ the tower one party after another. The power to the block fails, the food runs out and essentially the residents are cut off from ‘normal’ society, instead creating there own one that is divided, hierarchical, gendered, cruel and overtly surreal.
The first thing to say is the film oozes sex appeal (something that can no doubt be gleaned from the trailer). It is aesthetically stunning. It combines 70s chic cinematic architecture with an alluring colour palette. It produces a ‘look’ that is (perhaps meta-ironically) currently the main trope of current real estate architecture that is looking to flog newly privatised 70s tower blocks around London. This glorious and un-turn-away-from-able aesthetic pervades the film; and while threatens the progress of the narrative at times, continues to draw the viewer deeper into this hedonistic, Thomas Hobbes-inspired world. The ‘decent’ of the characters into this realm of social decay is perhaps not as ‘even’ as it is in the novel. As such the pace of the film is slightly off; there are moments of accelerated social decline, punctuated by slower (sometimes a bit flabby) periods of stasis. But this is no doubt a result of turning a description-heavy book into a dialogue-driven narrative, something which Amy Jump has achieved with a great deal of verve.
The acting in the film is quite brilliant – Tom Hiddleston and Sienna Miller’s calmness and sexual callousness is gorgeously seductive, but I thought that Luke Evans (as Richard Wilder) stole the show – he provides a stunning performance in which he effortlessly moves from bravado to macabre insanity.
The film’s overt (aesthetic and narrativised) surreal hedonism will not be to everyone’s taste, and there are many important political and social representations that will carry the film’s narrative beyond the cinematic realm (not least its commentary on verticality, brutalism, the creative class, housing politics and capitalism); but they are for another time. For now, sit back and enjoy a feast for the senses, they will certainly be heighted.
8/10 – Oli Mould