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May 24, 2016

Ben Wheatley’s “High-Rise”


Montecristo Magazine / Jim Tobler

Film director Ben Wheatley is comfortably seated on a couch in the lobby of the Vancity Theatre. He is at the end of a small series of interviews as he tours the world in support of his latest and first big-budget feature, High-Rise. A big budget these days means a certain amount of production luxuries, but of course, it also means the cast can be A-list—something Wheatley greatly appreciated at every step in the filming process. “It was amazing thing, just to look at the daily rushes,” he says. “Almost every second of it was fantastic. The actors really gave it their best.” Those actors include Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Luke Evans, and Elizabeth Moss.

The film is based on a J.G. Ballard novel, and embraces the dystopian vision that author is so well known for. In Hiddleston, Wheatley has an actor who, at the centre of the action, has at first studied, and then pathologically enforced, distance from the often bizarre politically and sexually fraught environment he finds himself in. Says Wheatley, referencing screenwriter Amy Jump, with whom he has worked in the past, “the script has its own logic. I didn’t get involved. We don’t do battling interpretations at all. What I did was create a kind of visual ecosystem, trying to find a new way of telling the story. I see it in my head, and then try to make it happen.” Hiddleston’s character is a neurologist who has just moved in to a high-rise apartment building. The tower has its architect ensconced in the penthouse, and there is a clear demarcation between the upper-floor and lower-floor residents, all based on social and economic lines. Tensions build between the two classes, and what can loosely be called normal and socially acceptable behaviours devolve into a rough and tumble, libidinous, and increasingly violent set of confrontations, ultimately ending in something approaching apocalypse.

The film is redolent of august influences, such as Stanley Kubrick and Terry Gilliam, but really establishes its own inexorable pace and a kind of random-feeling structure that in fact is unspooling towards a highly particularized inevitable result. With the violence, narrative leaps of logic, and fairly explicit sexuality, this film is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but as Wheatley says, “I had read the book, and knew it would not be an easy story to tell. Perhaps that is why it was in development for years before we took it on.”

The performances are uniformly exceptional. “Bad acting is usually delivering bad lines,” Wheatley declares. “Amy’s script didn’t have any bad lines, so that opened us up to great possibilities. In many scenes, it became a bit collaborative, a bit of a negotiation: Tom or Sienna might offer some insight, or ask a crucial question, and we would explore, usually with fantastic results.” High-Rise has played to great acclaim all over the world, and opens in Vancouver on May 20. While it cannot fairly be called a completely mainstream film, it offers challenges, asks tough questions, and suggests salvation is a multi-faceted thing, not a simple epiphany in the dark.