Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s satire of the British class system is both heavy-handed and now rather redundant.

A long time ago – in 1975 – J.G. Ballard wrote his novel High-Rise, a critique of the British class system, and in particular Thatcher’s heavy-handed response to the revolting working classes. To thump his point home, Ballard literalised his theme by placing the upper classes on the top floors of his eponymous high-rise, with the architect himself – the king of the castle – called ‘Royal’ and occupying the building’s luxurious eyrie. If all this allegorizing was not obvious enough, he threw in an amoral Everyman – Robert Laing – who was the archetypal ‘social climber.’ On the lower floors of this cutting-edge monolith, the residents – who pay a reduced rent – are referred to as the “lower people,” and so the mounting metaphors are disgorged at a vertiginous rate.



Nostalgic modernity: Tom Hiddleston


The director Ben Wheatley sets his adaptation squarely in the Seventies, thus allowing his cast members to flaunt a humiliating wardrobe and to smoke profusely. Only Laing himself (Tom Hiddleston) appears to rise above the tawdriness of his age, wearing a timeless suit and tie and seemingly at ease with those who live both beneath him and above. He is, observes Luke Evans’ volatile documentarian, “like an advanced species in a neutral atmosphere.” He is the mouthpiece from the future, the film’s narrator who tells us that it’s “hard not to believe that we were living in a future that has already taken place.”


Wheatley’s ace card is his modernistic take on the past and the use of a relatively modest budget to reveal a bygone era in all its opulent vulgarity. A parking lot beneath the high-rise is crammed with Seventies’ cars and the building’s interiors exude a Kubrickian otherworldliness. Indeed, Wheatley’s visual approach recalls the stylistic sophistication of Nicolas Roeg’s films of the period, with each new character played in yet another note off-key. Unlike his earlier films Down Terrace, Kill List and Sightseers, his High-Rise boasts big-name stars – Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss – and they all rise to the occasion. But the pervasive satirising is heavy-handed and today seems rather superfluous and dispensable – in the ensuing years dystopian fiction has moved several storeys higher.


Much of Wheatley’s love for the dark side is here – the forensic unwrapping of a human head, for starters – but the film needed even more grotesquerie to stick out from the crowd. Many of the characters are more tiresome than bizarre and one prays for a latter-day Patrick Magee to add a taste of the macabre. Instead we have James Purefoy as a disgruntled toff with a pipe glued to his mouth, even when helping to deliver a baby. There is a roster of splendid supporting actors, but the likes of Bill Paterson, Reece Shearsmith and Keeley Hawes are just thrown away. Kubrick would have known what to do with them.




Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Dan Skinner, Sienna Guillory, Enzo Cilenti, Reece Shearsmith, Augustus Prew, Louis Suc, Neil Maskell, Julia Deakin, Bill Paterson.


Dir Ben Wheatley, Pro Jeremy Thomas, Screenplay Amy Jump, Ph Laurie Rose, Pro Des Mark Tildesley, Ed Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley, Music Clint Mansell, Costumes Odile Dicks-Mireaux.


Recorded Picture Company/Film4/British Film Institute/HanWay Films/Northern Ireland Screen/Ingenious Media-StudioCanal.

118 mins. UK. 2015. Rel: 18 March 2016. Cert. 15.