If you’re a fan of “The Prisoner,” I have a feeling you’re going to really like Ben Wheatley’s “High-Rise,” adapted from the J.G. Ballard novel.
One of the things I learned early on about “The Prisoner” was that it is not for everyone. While I love the look of the world and the way the stories are told and the heightened sense of reality, I have seen enough people reject the entire thing outright to get that it is a particular taste. When you’re talking about adapting the work of British novelist J.G. Ballard into film, you’re automatically starting from a place outside the mainstream. He wasn’t writing books like Michael Crichton, hoping for a film deal to turn his barely-more-than-an-outline into a big summer blockbuster. Ballard wrote end-of-the-world science-fiction and he dealt with the darkest corners of the human heart in work like “The Atrocity Exhibition” or “Crash, and when he was a child, he was sent to a Chinese internment camp with his family for two years during WWII because they were living and working in Shanghai. That experience inspired his novel and, later, the Steven Spielberg film “Empire Of The Sun,” and there’s no doubt that the shadow over his childhood informed much of the tone and the philosophy of what he wrote. His work is so particular, so recognizable, that “Ballardian” is an accepted term in literary description at this point. And if you’re talking about what is “Ballardian,” then “High-Rise” is damn close to a perfect example.
What fascinates me about this film is that it’s Ballard as seen through the filter of Ben Wheatley, who has been turning out consistently smart and acidic films for the last handful of years, his craft evolving from film to film and apparently limitless in terms of what he’s capable of doing. “Kill List” was the moment when I realized Wheatley was a genuine madman, and both “Sightseers” and “A Field In England” feel to me like movies made by someone who is resolutely chasing his own particular worldview, one that happens to be gloriously dark and twisted. He is not afraid to break reality completely in order to paint a mysterious and ugly world underneath the shiny surfaces we all share, and the combination of his daffy misanthropy and Ballard’s sleek modernist rot results in something that has its own clear voice from the opening frames.
For those who have not read the novel, I want to be careful in trying to summarize the experience. Set in a high-end high-rise development designed by Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), this is a vicious satire of the way we create false communities while ignoring the truths about how community actually works. Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), running from some sort of personal tragedy, moves into the building and works to adapt to what is promised as a whole new way of life. He meets neighbors like Richard and Helen Wilder (Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss) and the free spirited Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), and at first, he allows himself to believe that he’s going to pull it off. But this complex is rotten at the core, and this sort of vertical slow-motion “Snowpiercer” proceeds to lay bare just how quickly things can fall apart when there’s no genuine bond between people. This building is so big it’s got its own shopping levels and health clubs and restaurants and ecosystem, and the way people are shuffled into this particular deck says a lot about how valued they are. Laing manages to see both the best and the worst of the place by virtue of who he is, and we see how he is grappling with his place in the hierarchy at work even as he adapts to this new hierarchy at home. Ballard wrote the book in the ’70s, but there’s a lot about the movie that speaks to the way Wheatley and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Amy Jump, see England right now.
Hiddleston is going to have an interesting autumn onscreen, what with this, “Crimson Peak,” and his Hank Williams film “I Saw The Light” all arriving within a matter of weeks from one another. I think he’s making choices that seem very aware of how he’s seen so far, how he’d like to be seen, and what sort of material is most important to him. My favorite performance of his in anything remains “Only Lovers Left Alive,” but that suggested just how smart he was about tweaking people’s expectations. He plays Laing as an essentially disappointing human being, a guy who likes to believe himself to be a man of the people, normal and average and friendly to everyone. It allows him to rub elbows with Royal and his friends and family, the upper crust of the upper crust, and it means that he’s at home in the bowels of the building, where the power and water seems to be rationed from day one, the poor having to sacrifice to maintain luxury for those above them. As good as Hiddleston is, I think Luke Evans almost steals the movie from him, and it really does make me think Evans is a resource that has yet to be fully tapped by the right filmmaker. It’s interesting to note that David Cronenberg wanted to make this as a film, and Jeremy Irons gives a performance that suggests what Cronenberg’s take could have felt like.