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May 20, 2016

J.G. Ballard gets a rise out of Ben Wheatley


The Georgia Straight / Adrian Mack

The last time somebody adapted a J.G. Ballard novel for the screen, it was 1996, the film was Crash, and it was banned in London. Director David Cronenberg’s solemn take on the material was one thing, but in truth it was Ballard’s perverse imagination that viewers found so upsetting.

“His prose style is like X-ray vision that just disassembles the modern world,” says Ben Wheatley, talking to the Straightduring a recent visit to Vancouver’s Vancity Theatre. “For me, it felt like fantasy when I read it. It doesn’t feel like fantasy anymore.”

The Brit filmmaker is on something of a publicity tour for his own demented version of Ballard’s High-Rise, opening Friday (May 20). The 1975 novel applies the author’s gentlemanly nihilism to a British middle class fractionating into violent hierarchies inside a modern suburban estate that seems to trigger all their worst (and strangest) pathologies.

Written by regular collaborator Amy Jump, Wheatley’s take amounts to the kind of wild, orgiastic cinema we don’t really see anymore; a mix of broad humour and shock that unfurls like a Mike Leigh/Nic Roeg two-hander. “It could be one of the last big counterculture books that slips through the system and gets made into a movie that costs more than 10 quid,” Wheatley muses with a smirk. “We all felt honoured that we managed to get it through.”

The precariousness of such a project aside, Wheatley saw the opportunity to indulge a more personal fetish with High-Rise, expressed through the film’s garish design, and—in the case of Luke Evans and Sienna Miller—performances that seem to channel Brit actors of a certain era like Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson.

“I was born in ’72 so I’m one of the kids in the tower block,” he says. “It’s kind of that child’s-eye view of what the adults got up to; the children’s experience of the ’70s, which was pretty rough, certainly in the U.K., where every other thing you watched was about drowning in a small pond or being electrocuted or the fear of nuclear destruction mixed with folk music and Nana Mouskouri and Paint Along With Nancy.” With a generous laugh he adds, “And it’s bookended by the Moors murders in the ’60s. This is a proper kind of evil lurking the land, isn’t it?”

It’s probably safe to say that the man who made Kill List has a refined sense of evil lurking. While Ballard seemed to understand that the social experiments of the mid-20th century were doomed, albeit in obscure ways, Wheatley and Jump add an epilogue to their High-Rise that’s more direct in addressing the engineers of Britain’s dysfunction. Remarkably, with all that, this most daring of filmmakers is looking at something like his first hit.

“People went to see it,” he says, with theatrical emphasis, of the film’s performance at home. “And that’s a relief. It means I can make movies. I’m not just in a corner pleasing myself.”