Dir. Ben Wheatley | ★★★★☆
"Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”
The opening sentence of JG Ballard’s High Rise is up there with the English literary canon’s very best. It’s all there; protagonist, setting, intrigue. People have been watching that dog revolving on its spit in their mind’s eye since 1976. Now, finally, they can see it on the big screen.
And it’s just as grimy and visceral as you’d imagined. Ballard’s dystopian tower block – inspired by the Brutalist buildings built throughout the 60s – is fully-realised urban decay.
It doesn’t quite convey the clutter of the novel, which sees characters hurl themselves over barricades of filth just to leave their flats, but it does do the dirt justice. Bin bags line the corridors, dead plants surround corpses like rotting Ophelias in the communal swimming pool, and every available surface is piled high with ash and cigarette ends.
Having spent time in a Shanghai internment camp during the war, Ballard knew just how fragile social order was. When he moved a group of middle-class professionals into a concrete tower block, he wanted to show how even “the best of us”, the well-educated, the seemingly reasonable and well-mannered could descend to their primal natures if forced to live in hostile conditions.
But in director Ben Wheatley’s interpretation, it’s full-on class warfare. The lower floors of the high rise are occupied by violent, constantly breeding brutes, the middle section by cold professionals and the top floors by celebrities, aristocrats and the aptly-named Royal, the architect of the building itself.
The decision to set it in the 70s, on the other hand, seems unnecessarily faithful to the original text when our current housing woes are crying out for big screen satire. With its slouchy indie covers of Abba songs and headachey carpets, the whole thing feels dangerously close to succumbing to pastiche.
But writer Amy Lee saves the day with a suspenseful screenplay that builds its female characters up to be more than victims of brutality, particularly Sienna Miller who undergoes a gruelling fall from grace as Charlotte Melville.
Tom Hiddleston plays opposite, his natural understatement and tendency to appear detached finding a welcome home in the canine-chomping Dr Laing. It also succeeds in being darkly funny, which the book hardly ever is; Ballard’s dialogue is scant, but Lee’s is charged with a knowing absurdity.
It’s a bit blunt at times, but High Rise is a stylish dystopia that delights in watching the world burn.