Ben Wheatley made an ambitious step in bringing High-Rise to the screen – and we’ve been taking a look back at the film here.
One of the immediate responses to watching High-Rise is the sense of Ben Wheatley levelling up, taking a step toward bigger budgets, actors with greater renown and a scale not yet witnessed by this director.
He retains the same core narrative and visual ideas from those earlier pictures. His adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s supposedly ‘unfilmable’ novel from 1975 is set almost entirely within the modernist, concrete tower that forms the centre of the tale’s thematic constructs, allowing Wheatley the sense of place and construction he often employs. Present so too in Amy Jump’s script is the darkest of vicious wit and lashings of the avant garde, in a more deliberately gauche manner than A Field in England. This is Wheatley by way of John Boorman or Ken Russell. Yet this is also deliberately artful, often visually sumptuous, even when exploring the descent of humanity into a bubble of materialist, savage depravity.
It wasn’t, unusually, Wheatley’s exact next step from A Field in England. He had planned to develop a film long gestating called Freak Shift, before the TARDIS came calling in the wake of Sightseers, as he told Total Film:
I’d done a load of TV before that, and I’d asked my agent about getting work on Doctor Who. He was like, “no”. But I think they brought that [Sightseers] up in the interview with me. It’s that thing of having genre and action and comedy. It’s the right mix of stuff because everything is on that spectrum. If you’ve got that in your toolkit, then that’s a good skill to have. I got to go into the TARDIS with my son. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Wheatley is rather modest about his Doctor Who contribution in 2014. He helmed the very first major episodes for Peter Capaldi’s Tweflth Doctor, ‘Deep Breath’ (extended to almost feature length) and ‘Into the Dalek’. He helped set the template for an entire era of Doctor Who storytelling, inheriting the flavour of director’s past, whilst adding in his own trademarks. For one thing, so many Wheatley regulars pop up – Tony Way, Peter Ferdinando (as the chilling Half-Face Man in ‘Deep Breath’), Michael Smiley etc… Plus Wheatley gets to indulge his fascinations with history (‘Deep Breath’ is set in Victorian London) and characteristic themes of goodness in men questioning their own humanity – in this case the Doctor himself.
This isn’t to say that Steven Moffat’s script work wouldn’t have brought these aspects to the fore anyway. His plan with Capaldi’s Doctor centres, initially, around the idea of him being ‘a good man’, after digging into the mythology around his name itself. Wheatley, however, has a great deal of fun indulging his own love of genre television, no doubt growing up with the lower budget, cheesier version of the show in the 1970s, and employing different styles. Across two episodes, he gets to play with rampaging dinosaurs, robots, Daleks and space battles. It suggests within the director is a desire to let loose, which will become apparent particularly in Meg 2: The Trench, much later on.
If he grew up embracing the folklore of 1970s Britain, the choice to make High-Rise suggests a fascination with the symbolism, politics and visual architecture of a period known for British social and economic decay. Wheatley describes this:
Amy and I were born in 1972, so we were the same age as the children in the tower. In many ways the children in the tower were our parents and we have seen how their lives have turned out. The film is a look at the book, from the perspective of the people that survived it. We are in a perpetual 70s/80/90s. Boom followed by bust, then boom followed by bust again.
High-Rise premiered in 2015 but was released in the spring of 2016, a matter of months before the infamous Brexit referendum that cemented the subsequent decade (and perhaps longer) of British politics and austerity. This might appear unconnected but in truth, the politics and social fabric of the 1970s and 1980s have haunted British life across the 2010s and into the 2020s. Austerity, increasingly right-wing, ultra-conservative governance and a slide toward high inflation and recession have seen the kind of slow decay of the British social and political contract visible in the 1970s. They had power cuts and miners strikes. We have mass walkouts, starved public services and a failing National Health Service. The spectre of that fiscal mismanagement links both decades acutely.
This is perhaps partly why Wheatley saw High-Rise’s power in the modern day. Nicolas Roeg, another singular British directorial presence who, during the 1970s, married together supernatural terror and human pain in pictures such as Don’t Look Now, had designs on making the film with producer Jeremy Thomas. It never came to pass but Thomas enjoyed Sightseers and Wheatley had always been a great admirer of the novel itself. It proved to be a timely marriage between the producer and director.
Wheatley discusses why adapting High-Rise had proven so elusive across the previous 40 years:
I think that the issue that people had with the book in terms of adapting it was that they thought it was futuristic and that it was projecting into the future. But the future Ballard was projecting was forward of 1975 and we have lived into that future. We were making a futuristic film about a projected past. Because we have seen what happened, and Ballard also saw it coming down the pipe, we decided to have the end quote from Thatcher about state capitalism.
Here is what Thatcher says, in a speech from late 1976, “A free enterprise system is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. There is only one economic system in the world, and that is capitalism. The difference lies in whether the capital is in the hands of the State or whether the greater part of it is in the hands of people outside of State control. Where there is State capitalism there will never be political freedom. “
You could read High-Rise as the birth of neoliberalism, as espoused by the Thatcherite era from 1979 onwards, following the recession of the latter part of that decade and James Callaghan’s famous “Crisis? What crisis?” quote which helped sound the death knell not just of a Labour government but Keynesian economics that had stayed strong since the end of WW2. We can debate the merits or negatives of neoliberalism all we like, but Thatcher’s invocation of that economic theory forever changed Britain. It manifested as an acute individualism that stripped away community cohesion. In favouring her devoutly Christian view of the family being central to moral life, Thatcher’s Britain ended up fostering an ‘every man for himself’ attitude to work, life and money.
Wheatley discusses this how this peaks to a contradiction we exist within:
We all drive cars but don’t really care where the petrol comes from. Countries that produce oil are bombed but we are removed in our empathy because we want to continue to be able to drive our cars around. That was one of the most heartbreaking things about New Labour. There were more wars under Blair than there were under Thatcher. As people that live in a country with an army that is out in active service we are part of that. That’s the ugliness of our society and we can’t pretend that we are not responsible. This is certainly what Kill List (2011) is about. They bring the war home. People’s memories tend to be short. When we look back at the tribes that have lived in England, they have done all sorts of terrible things. And will continue to.
If this disoriented the country, then Wheatley’s exploration of this breaking social contract – ideas he has long explored in a micro scale through characters in his work – sees High-Rise steadily disorient the audience. We know where it’s going thanks to a disturbing prologue with Tom Hiddleston’s half-mad Dr. Robert Laing roasting a dog in a largely destroyed tower block, but what begins visually as a point of structure and order – with a tower filled with professionals who go to work, shop, attend the gym etc… in a routine and predictable fashion, steadily spirals into a world of class-tiered insanity; a 17th century inspired whirlwind of competitive violence and social breakdown.
Much as we see the film through the prism of straight-laced Laing, as he is corrupted by the system of the tower block, the building itself is the main character. A visage of 1960s concrete brutalism, Wheatley presents it as a sky bound utopia. Supermarkets, entertainment complexes, mod coms, even for the architect and God-figure Anthony Royal (a venom-spitting Jeremy Irons), an Edenic set of palatial roof gardens, it has apparently been constructed to transport the elite into the sky and out of the dirt. Laing talks about how his father rejected him as a child: “I was always covered in something. Mud, jam, failure… My father never associated himself with anything dirty.” This suggests Laing’s determination to be spic and span, Hiddleston almost Bondian at times in his sartorial precision, stems from a determination to escape the filth of the street below.
This also subscribes to one of Wheatley’s other obsessions – the class system. We’ve seen this riven through his previous pictures but it is the most acute in High-Rise, where middle-class aspiration is controlled by a man with the surname Royal. As these people fall deeper into savagery and depravity, those who escape such a cult mindset of individuality, such as Luke Evans’ boorish Richard Wilder, become maddened at how protected these people end up being. “Doesn’t it seem odd, Laing? That a man can fall from the thirty-ninth floor, and not one police car turn up? Where’s the investigation, Laing? I mean, where’s the sirens?”. There are no sirens in this dystopian, retro future-scape. There are no consequences.
This is equally apparent in how Wheatley explores sex, which cascades through the film. Sienna Miller’s alluring Charlotte, a mother but still living in the echo of the Swinging 60s, is desired by Wilder, taken by Royal and becomes entranced by how different Laing is. She ends up even objectifying him, observing Laing’s toned, near naked physique on his balcony. Ultimately, she becomes a victim in a manner Elisabeth Moss’ pregnant Helen Wilder is of her husband’s open promiscuity and sense of masculine underachievement. If Laing typifies the broader societal move from community cohesion into individual degradation, then Wilder represents Wheatley’s recurrent theme of trapped men who commit horrors due to entitled grievance. Royal in his own way is just as psychologically impotent, despite existing at the top of the social tree.
Even while High-Rise suggests the birth of capitalism, you could argue it equally presages the beginning of its end. Wheatley’s tower, with its jagged edges, sleek walls and opulent interiors speak to a future where people strive for wealth and accumulation, yet the events of Ballard’s story serve to underline how the 70’s hasn’t let go. Power cuts affect the “settling” architecture as Royal describes, presumed strikes stop the food coming and the bins start piling up. The consequence is anarchy, and class warfare – the gentry who have parties dressed as French aristocrats are outraged at the middle to lower class workers, epitomised by Wilder, who dare to rebel against their desperate circumstances.
Laing plays the middle, not often by choice, serving as a straight man and neutral counterpoint to the spiralling madness and gallery of grotesques on both sides who squeeze out of the woodwork. Yet as the world in the high rise falls, the biggest absurdity is why nobody chooses to leave. If anything that’s Wheatley’s biggest open comment. They could but they don’t. Laing, ultimately, loses his connection to reality in not doing so, by the end separating himself into the third person. “For all its inconveniences, Laing was satisfied with life in the high-rise. Now that so many of the residents were out of the way, he felt able to relax. More in charge of himself. Ready to move forward and explore life. How and where, exactly, he had not yet decided. Sometimes he found it difficult not to believe they were living in a future that had already taken place.”
Wheatley deploys all the directorial tricks at his disposal, from kaleidoscopic camera angles to searing fast cut montages set to classical versions of Abba (and it works so well) all the way to long, leering shots of the towering monolith surrounded by dozens of other similar construction projects. He also, much as in Doctor Who and previous works, brings in familiar recurring faces – Ferdinando, Way, Neil Maskell, Julia Deakin (both in smaller roles than Kill List and Down Terrace respectively). The result is a picture at home in Wheatley’s canon whilst also existing as a stridently visceral, savage piece of social and political satire. It makes you laugh all the while disturbing you.
High-Rise says as much about our world today through its eccentric prism as it does the world of yesterday, and imagines almost an increasingly dystopic world of tomorrow where the rich consider it their right to prevail given their status and how high up they are. Consider the building in J G. Ballard’s story as society, and think about what floor you live on, or want to live on, and what might happen if nobody stood in your way.
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