High Rise, the new film from the brilliant Ben Wheatley, doesn’t actually release here in the UK until the 18th of March, and the US release isn’t until much later. Luckily for me though I got to see a preview screening at HOME Manchester, which included a brilliant Q+A with the film’s producer, Jeremy Thomas, probably the biggest name in British independent cinema production. But firstly; the film – is it actually any good?
Like the book it’s based on, High Rise follows Dr Robert Laing, played wonderfully by Tom Hiddleston, a successful surgeon who aspires to greater things while also grieving the death of his late sister (the first of a couple of deviations from the source novel). The other roles are filled out with more brilliant actors such as Luke Evans as proletariat film maker/womaniser Richard Wilder, Jeremy Irons as the high rise’s architect Anthony Royal, Sienna Miller as Charlotte; a wild party girl who hides an important secret, and Elizabeth Moss as Helen Wilder, Richard’s wife who is too good for both her husband and the world of the high rise. Other faces like Keeley Hawes and Reece Shearsmith also pop up, and not one actor feels out of place. Ben Wheatley regular, Neil Maskell, even has a little cameo. Jeremy Thomas said in the Q+A after the film that the actors in the film wanted to be in a Ballard adaptation, and this explains the casts complete determination and transformations as these characters. The actors all want to be there and it shows on screen because all of them turn in spot-on performances and seem like they’re enjoying themselves in the process. The diverse cast of characters does mean we never delve too deep into any one character though. And while this could be seen as a bad thing in other films, it works well in High Rise, as ambiguity is pretty much the order of the day.
The look of the film is another highlight. The filmmakers really capture the 70’s aesthetic with the browns and golds, the garish wallpapers and upholstery, the big hair – and it all works to create a believable setting. The frequent use of slo-mo is a a nice touch as well, being used here not just to look cool but also to just look creepy and other-worldly. Wheatley’s direction is frequently stunning, and here it more resembles his moody sci fi work on Doctor Who than the kitchen sink aesthetic he perfected in Kill List. The frequent use of close ups and midshots put you right there in the action, although the claustrophobic direction in some scenes might not be for everybody. But for me it worked, and I often felt like I was actually cramped up inside the high rise with these mostly detestable characters. The always relaible Clint Mansell provides a great score too, full of synthy beats brilliantly reminicient of classic Tangerine Dream. The real musical standout though is Portishead’s cover of ABBA’s SOS. They manage to take a silly song, which had previously only been known in cinema for being sung horrendously (but with gusto) by Pierce Brosnan in the terrible Mamma Mia, and made it dark and broody, and perfectly fitting for the disturbed world of High Rise. There’s an awesome string version of the song too, which carries a completely different tone but is equally outstanding.
The bottom line: High Rise is a great adaptation and also just a damn good film.The performances, the direction, the set design, the music – it’s all spot on. It’s almost certainly Wheatley’s best made film, and it fits right in with the other high quality films of Jeremy Thomas. The lack of deep character development and frequently claustrophobic direction won’t be for everyone, and the film isn’t as accessible as the trailers make out. But if you give it time, and buy into it’s beautifully created world, then High Rise could be a classic.