THE HIGH LIFE
Tom Hiddleston lives it up in Ben Wheatley’s High- Rise.
For those unfamiliar with JG Ballard’s 1975 novel, High- Rise, it’s more than a little crazy. The inhabitants of a state- of- the- art London tower block engage in class warfare as failures in technology instigate an escalating orgy of destruction. Marauding battles occur in the corridors and stairwells; Dionysian parties last night and day in apartments; the mask of civility is stamped underfoot as primal urges are lustily satisfied.
Forty years in the making ( even Nicolas Roeg couldn’t crack a cinematic adaptation), a movie of High- Rise finally ( dis) graces our screens courtesy of Brit director du jour Ben Wheatley ( Kill List, Sightseers, Doctor Who), working from a script by his wife and regular scribe Amy Jump. Premiering at the Toronto Film Festival and then playing the London fest, Wheatley’s uncompromising vision of a futuristic 1970s floored many, perplexed others.
“I think there was resistance because of the general idea of a received Hollywood kind of narrative,” chuckles Wheatley. “When you push that to the edge, it becomes Die Hard. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the idea that the protagonist must win at all costs and will defeat all the baddies along the way, like a videogame…” He sighs. “There’s a version of High- Rise where Laing gets to the top of the tower and goes, ‘ I am the king of high- rise. Yippee- ki- yay, motherfucker!’ But [ the book and the film] is a lot of going up and down the building but not really getting anywhere. Laing himself is a voyeur, like the audience; he doesn’t ever really get involved. That is the story.”
The aforementioned Laing is a doctor from the 25th floor. Voyeur or participant, he, like everyone else, undergoes a remarkable change across the course of the film. Wheatley describes Tom Hiddleston, the actor who portrays Laing, as a “consummate professional”, pointing out that the film was shot out of order and yet his leading man had to remain “in control of Laing’s collapse, and that’s a bastard hard thing to do.”
Hiddleston insists that Ballard’s prose gives all the notes he could ever need. “It puts your head in a place,” he says, then muses: “At what point do you accept your new primal animalistic truth, which is a warped – or simply more true – version of who you are? When does Dr Robert Laing – an elegant, sophisticated physiologist – become Laing: man, protector, loner, wolf ?”
Shot in the abandoned Brutalist husk of Bangor Castle Leisure Centre in Northern Ireland, with the same few spaces redecorated again and again to create the illusion of the many interiors of a 40- storey superstructure,
High- Rise manages to make its $ 6m budget stretch an awful long way. The film feels claustrophobic and self- contained, but the tower is remarkably convincing. Add a starry support cast that includes the likes of Luke Evans, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, Reece Shearsmith, James Purefoy and Peter Ferdinando, and you have one of the must- see – if undoubtedly controversial – movies of 2016.
“Ballard’s book still feels modern,” says Wheatley. “In 20 years’ time, it’ll feel modern. He was writing the sci- fi of the internal, and I think that stuff will always be relevant.”
High- Rise will be released on 18 March by StudioCanal.