For years believed to be unfilmable in every way, JG Ballard’s classic novel about a class divided block of flats has been kept away from the screen. Numerous writers have tried and failed over the past 40 years to bring it to life, yet Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump have finally succeeded. They’ve brought the paradoxical, mad, and hugely uncomfortable story spinning in to life with colour, violence and humour. It is by no means conventional. But that’s its brilliance.
Rather ingeniously set in the time of the novel’s release (a heightened version of seventies Britain), High Rise follows the metaphorical collapse of a giant block of modern flats designed to cater to everyone’s needs. Centering on the young aspiring middleclass Dr Laing (Tom Hiddleston), we see a building designed as a crucible for social change buckle under the weight of the task. When electricity fails, food goes rotten and waste begins to build up, the microcosm of society descends into madness, violence and sex.
Like most good sci fi, High Rise is mad. Beginning with Laing eating a domestic dog on a balcony covered with paint and human blood, the unhinged nature of Wheatley’s film is utterly brilliant. With a kinetic pace, the film has the behaviour of a madman. It’s prone to loud outbursts of rage and is incredibly violent. What’s more, Laurie Rose’s cinematography offers inspired, dizzying visuals to complement this. In the hazy interiors he manages extremely inventive images – a favourite being a tracking shot in which the camera barrel rolls down the corridor.
The design of the sets, costumes and environments must also be commended for adding to this madness. From the foreboding nature of the brown concrete flats to those that live within its walls, everything is steeped in a gloriously retro seventies vision. Full of shag carpets, mutton chops and minimalist furniture, there is a sense of vibrancy and indulgence to this version of the seventies. Completely unrecognisable as an actual Britain, what the film does is craft an alternative seventies. It’s one that is unreal, fractured and disconnected.
Yet what makes this such a unique piece of British science fiction is the humor it teases out of such a dark subject. As with Kill List and Sightseers, Wheatley has created something that is raucously funny. The pompous elite that fortify themselves on the top floor have some great lines, offering implausible solutions as to how to fix a societal collapse. The architect of the building (Jeremy Irons) is also dryly funny, absurdly confident that his plan for the building is all going to plan. But the clever thing about it is the bitterness to the comedy. Every joke through dialogue or physical action has a sting and a bite to it, seething with the grimness of the whole scenario. Much like Peter Greenaway’s work, the humour is found in outbursts of people’s true hateful characteristics. In a film about the sourness that underlies all our thoughts on societal class, taste and wealth, this is dark and uncomfortable comedy.
Wheatley’s construction is one of insanity and implausibility. It is hilarious, horrifying, uncomfortable and revealing. And while it may be a document of fears from a past era, the chaos, anarchy and worries of it are at least partly recognisable.