Apartment Apocalypse: Ben Wheatleys High-Rise (2015) – Blu-ray review
A smart adaptation of Ballard that serves as creative celebration/deconstruction of the 1970s Britflicks beloved of hipsters. Wheatley ends up satirising his own style.
(Ben Wheatley, 2016)
J.G. Ballard’s dystopian satire was a modernist hell when he wrote it in the 1970s. Inevitably, in Ben Wheatley’s hands, it becomes something else: a deadpan séance of everything that was ghastly about that decade – but everything that was cool, too. Few modern filmmakers have grasped the mantle of this fervent period of cinema; perhaps only Peter Strickland can match Wheatley in their allegiance to deep cult.
So High-Rise is a stylish melangé of Kubrick (especially A Clockwork Orange), Cronenberg (who made the Ballard-esque Shivers long before he adapted Crash) and Mike Leigh, this resembling a bleak, hardcore version of Abigail’s Party. Throw in traces of a few films from either side of the 1970s, notably Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel and Gilliam’s Brazil, and the risk is that this might be a mere pastiche of cool reference points.
There’s no doubting the cool. The impeccable art and costume direction provide a heady swirl of oversized collars, angular wooden furniture and kitsch backdrops, all the better for Wheatley to sardonically exaggerate with slow-motion and a sinister cover version of Abba’s S.O.S. by Portishead. The director’s preference for grisly laughs finds the perfect partner in Ballard’s remorseless descent into a form of polite savagery, as the class struggle becomes a battleground over mod cons when the electricity fails and the garbage disposal clogs up.
What critics of Wheatley – and almost certainly this film – miss is a genuine anger in his work and the willingness to choose the difficult route to express it. As satire, this isn’t subtle but Wheatley lets it play out with commendable broadness, as a cartoonishly posh James Purefoy insists “we have to show the lower floors that we can throw a better party than them.” But this is an equal opportunities critique, almost nihilistic as it pours acid on social climber Sienna Miller, malcontented family man Luke Evans and Tom Hiddlestone’s ambivalent, proto-Thatcherite emblem of classlessness, the supposed hero who becomes more remote as the barbarism stacks up around him.
An eclectic cast works wonders, with Jeremy Irons rubbing shoulders with House Of Fools’ Dan Skinner, while Hiddlestone – the first real movie star Wheatley has worked with – is surrounded by the director’s repertory of eccentric character actors like Tony Way and Peter Fernandino. With such strength in depth, Wheatley can avoid to skirt around the edges of narrative cohesion. The film unites its characters in the sorry sham of a failed utopian dream in montages that spin the plates so furiously that it’s only a matter of time before they shatter.
Indeed, one of the film’s best jokes is that the complex seemingly falls apart in the course of a few minutes on-screen, so fragile was the pretence that all was well. Accordingly, the early, witty nimble stretches of scene-setting turn to a repetitive grind, albeit done deliberately that Wheatley can wallow in the debris. By the end, even Wheatley’s cool has been exposed to the bone by Ballard’s acidic vision.
High-Rise is out on Blu-ray and DVD now.
Tagged British Cinema