BFI London Film Festival 2015 – High Rise (2016)
It’s a curious thing being a film critic, especially when you are specifically forbidden from writing coverage of certain films as to not dilute the existing material squatting on a website. This is my sober situation with Ben Wheatley’s eagerly awaited High-Rise which has already been screened at the Toronto, New York and Locarno film festivals, before arriving home at the LFF for a local gala last week. No matter, as our North American comrades loss is the Menagerie’s reward, as despite my muddled and slightly frustrated thoughts on the picture I want to make one thing absolutely clear. High Rise is essential viewing for anyone remotely interested in UK cinema, in SF film or cult attuned material, and as a somewhat rare adaption of the great J.G. Ballard it is clearly one of the ‘important’ films of the year, if such a phrase makes sense. I’ve been aware of and my suspicions confirmed by the learned souls at Sight & Sound identifying a shivering shoal of what might be termed a UK film ‘wave’ over the five or six years, a loose affiliation of filmmakers whom make indigenously attuned fare, which you could faintly cluster around the names of Ben Wheatley, Andrea Arnold, Richard Ayoade, Carol Morley and Peter Strickland. Wiser souls that I can probably identify some linking strands of DNA through these diverse voices – the fact that Strickland specialises in continental sub-genre pastiches is enough to divorce him from the particularly British setting and symbiosis of the others work – and there are probably other names out there which have slipped my net. Wheatley however has garnered the most attention from the cult and genre attuned periodicals, mostly due to the dark vein of humour and horror that runs like a severed aorta through A Field In England, Kill List and Sightseers, and his new film shifts up a gear in terms of viability of cast, quality of source material and prestige production partners.
Super UK Producer Jeremy Thomas has been trying to make this film for twenty years, so its to his credit that he’s taken a small gamble with such an locally established, but internationally untested helmsman. It’s probably best to start with the positives of the film, with the ferocious elements which are worthy of Ballard’s great premonition and savagely curious mind which have managed to hack and slash their way on-screen. The cruel sense of humour and decay of civilisation to barbarism among the modernist architecture are modes and satirical arenas I’m just naturally amused by, particularly with my recent career turn into professional government spheres such as planning, economic development and regeneration which has been my specialism over the past few years. In keeping with Ballard’s obsidian black humour the comedy is extremely dark and frequently violent, so if you’re a sick twisted fuck then you’ll have much to enjoy. The cast are all admirable, including Luke Evans as an odious predator, Sienna Miller as a gauche but exceptionally friendly housewife and there’s a particularly terrific British accent from Elizabeth Moss, while Tom Hiddleston provides the supporting struts as the isolated psychiatrist Dr. Laing, a voice of wavering empathy and reason as the structures of polite society increasingly shudder and wane. On a conceptual level I’ll award full marks for keeping the 1970’s novel setting, if they’d updated it with a gated community feel and everyone locked into their smartphone & social media accounts I think it would have been a chore, while some of the period detail will just have viewers of a certain age wallowing in a sepia toned nostalgia like Shane Meadows recent efforts. I keep going on about soundtracks at the moment don’t I? Well, again I can’t resist when the work is so striking, but Clint Mansell again does the project proud, while in the films strongest linking scene a montage is set to Portishead’s powerful cover version of Abba’s S.O.S of all things which plays just brilliantly. If I had to offer some pithy pitch of the film I’d probably go for the vibe of a paedophile era BBC sit-com crossed with a ketamine crazed expansion of that bit in Event Horizon, in a stark social severing of a severe Seventies psychosis.
Inevitably the pendulum must now swing to the negatives, which you can assess as to whether they eclipse or overwhelm the positives. It seems that balanced pacing and a robust structure is still beyond Wheatley’s grasp, as although the individual ingredients are rich and ripe they simply don’t blend into a completely satisfying whole. In High Rise we seem to plunge into some scenes at a point somewhere around 30 or 45 seconds too late, as if the characters have already struck a rapport or are developing a relationship on some sort of arc. Similarly we cut away to another slightly disorienting sequence before the point has been made, before any sort of narrative milestone has been transmitted, logically enabling the plot to move along and linkages made across events and personages, locations and geography.
Now I realise that such a critique will no doubt sound spectacularly pompous or pretentious and maybe I am, and while overall I enjoyed the film I also harboured a growing sense of gnawing frustration, as High Rise grasped for true greatness which just slipped through its trembling fingers. You’re introduced to what feels like major characters such as Jeremy Irons chief architect of the entire symbolic living space but his appearance feels perfunctory from a narrative perspective, so the relationships and linkages through the web of denizens remains vague and insubstantial, to the point of distraction. Throughout the second act the architecture relies on another montage, then another, then yet another to suggest the sense of time passing, of the degradation and disintegration intensifying, but this fails to develop the relationship between the characters of personify their psychic states. This lapse doesn’t compute with the effort that Hiddlestone and his companions supposedly brought to breathe life, purpose and motivation into their characters, rather than them falling into satirical cyphers which is the overall, final impression. Cinematically there is also a frankly BBC adaption ‘feel’ to the veneer and finish of the film which when blown up to widescreen doesn’t match the dimensions, whilst I don’t know what film stock or more likely what digital capture units are being employed but some sort of colour correction or emulsifying agent is required. To be fair I’m sure Wheatley wasn’t exactly wrestling with an enormous budget and you sense that every penny has been splattered on-screen, but it just feels a little less……prestigious and therefore less potent that it could have been.
So there we are, maybe I’m being overly critical and unfair but what can I say – that’s my reaction and regretfully I cannot lie. In any case I still strongly recommend the film when it opens in a few months, the crowd loved it, it’s certainly funny and has some striking moments so you could do a lot worse considering what our sceptred isle produces from time to time. As I said Wheatley was amusing during the Q&A and unsurprisingly revealed that he grew up reading 2000AD, finding his way to Ballard as an impressionable teenager alongside those seminal rites of passage Fear & Loathing, The Naked Lunch and American Psycho. This puts him firmly in the same generation and ideology as me and my mates in another part of the country, and our paths probably crossed over the same visits to Forbidden Planet, thoroughly scanning the third generation VHS classified ads of the NME or Melody Maker and sharing the same late Sunday night excitement of Moviedrome. As well as throwing that great The Fall song on the closing credits another several million kudos points for having one of the children in the film reading Action Comics in one brief blink and you’ll miss it cameo, it’s just little touches like that make the whole enterprise a little more worthwhile. It’s also interesting to muse over the fact that the project has passed through the hands of Nicholas Roeg, Vincenzo Natali and Richard Stanley over the years, all of whom would have probably had a good crack at the material, with perhaps superior or diminishing returns. He remains a fascinating filmmaker whom I’m sure may have a UK masterpiece in him at some point in the future, he does seem to be evolving and growing as a talent which means we will continue to keep a close twitching eye on him,