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Total Crap77.78%

1 review, 3 user ratings

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High-Rise (2015)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Apartments"
1 stars

Whenever a well-known filmmaker decides to bring the work of an equally well-known author to the big screen, there is always the question of whether the two distinct artistic perspectives will mesh together beautifully or clash awkwardly. In some cases, the combinations are pretty obvious, such as the fusion of Jane Austen and director Whit Stillman in the delightful “Love & Friendship,” and in others, the pairings may seem odd at first but prove to be inspired after all, such as when Martin Scorsese tackled Edith Wharton for his vastly underrated 1993 drama “The Age of Innocence.” That said, unless Woody Allen was to announce plans to bring the collected works of Jack London to the screen, I cannot instantly think of a more awkward pairing than that of author J.G. Ballard, who has shocked readers for decades with novels like “Crash” (the good one) that combined wild and outrageous concepts with a spare, elegant and darkly witty writing style, and director Ben Wheatley, the British cult figure behind such crudely brutal exercises in cinematic sadism as “Kill List,” “Sightseers” and “A Field in England.” And yet, it is Wheatley who, after decades of rumors and false starts, ultimately got the gig of making a film out of Ballard’s 1975 novel “High-Rise” and it is hard to imagine anyone else making a bigger botch of it than this crude and misfired exercise in surreal dark comedy that knows the words of Ballard’s original book but none of the music that made it such a compelling read.

Set roughly in the mid-1970s—both the time of the publication of the novel and, not insignificantly, the moment when Margaret Thatcher began her rise to power—“High-Rise” takes place almost entirely within the walls of an ultra-modern apartment complex that offers the promise of being so self-contained that one hardly needs to step out into the real world anymore. It soon becomes clear that the building seems to have been designed to serve as a microcosm of British society—the top floors and the best amenities (such as the closer parking spaces and faster elevators) are reserved for the richest tenant with the ridiculously lavish 50th-floor penthouse reserved for “The Architect,” Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). The lowest floors are populated by the less well-off who are forced to make do with fewer and shabbier amenities even though they are theoretically paying the same amount as those on the top floor. The middle floors contain those in the middle class who find themselves torn between the lives above them that they aspire to and the ones below them to whom they can still feel superior.

Our guide to all of this is Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a physiologist who has just moved onto the 25th floor. At first, he clearly aspires to rise above his current station—he befriends Charlotte (Sienna Miller), the single mother living directly above him, and even becomes Royal’s squash partner. However, as time goes in, the divisions between the richer and poorer levels become more pronounced and when the power inexplicably goes out and is never restored, the entire populace of the building devolves further into madness as the food begins to run out and both the garbage and the bodies begin to stack up. The big joke is that all the pain and suffering could be avoided in any number of ways, from everyone working together for the common good or simply by leaving the building, but these people are so entrenched in their roles in the class struggle that they would rather endure rapes, beatings and eating dog food (and much worse). The even bigger joke is that they have managed to so completely isolate themselves from their fellow man that when everything goes to hell, no one in the outside world even takes notice about what is going on with them.

Although it has been a while since I have read the book, it seems to me that the storylines of it and the film jibe fairly closely in the particulars but they could not be farther apart in terms of execution. In the book, for example, Ballard guided us through the apartment complex and quietly illustrated the tiny point of conflict between the residents that would eventually inspire anarchy in the halls and his elegantly precise writing style, he was able to recount the most hideous events in such a way that you found yourself going back to reread passages that you had just completed because you simply could not believe what you had just read. (While I won’t reveal it here, the first sentence of the book is one of the all-time great opening lines.) Sadly, neither Wheatley nor screenwriter Amy Jump are able to replicate the delicate tone that Ballard was able to devise and maintain throughout. Instead, nearly all of the characters are depicted as borderline psychotic weirdos right from the get-go and as a result, once things go sideways, they have nowhere to go except broader and louder. At the same time, all the social satire is pretty much tossed out the window for an endless array of brutal images that quickly lose their stick value and eventually become numbing long before it finally arrives at its finale. In the book, one got the sense that all the events that were about to transpire were the inevitable result of the enforced class divisions—they almost could have been written in with the blueprints for the building—whereas here, it comes across as wild chaos that allows viewers to cultivate an aura of superiority to the characters on the screen rather than force them to recognize themselves in the people tearing each other apart, as Ballard did so effortlessly.

The other big problem with the film is that two of the key roles—Robert and the building itself—have been miscast so badly that even if Wheatley had figured out the right approach to the story, it probably still would have come up short. As Robert, Tom Hiddleston turns in a performance that is technically fine but which is nevertheless a disaster because you never buy him as a middle-class type for a second—in every possible aspect ranging from looks to bearing to his aloof behavior, he seems to have been bred from berth to inhabit one of the higher floor in the building. Thus works during the moments when he is palling around with Royal but when the other posh types mock him for being a dilettante, their dismissal seems more bizarre than anything else on display. As for the building, it should in theory look a nicely appointed but otherwise nondescript hotel in which all of the strange things go on behind closed doors until it all finally explodes. Here, Wheatley has gone the opposite route by making everything just a little too visually striking and distinct for its own good—it may read as pretty neat on a simple visual basis but as a place where hundreds of people are supposed to be living, it does not make any sense at all.

“High-Rise” has a few darkly amusing moments here and there and the occasional arresting image, such as a group of moldy peaches in the building’s grocery story that effectively symbolize the descent of the building and its inhabitants, but for the most part, it is a film that seems more concerned with making a name for itself as an exceptionally nasty cult item than in trying to bring the words of J.G. Ballard to life. In the hands of a director whose sensibilities were a better match with Ballard’s (such as David Cronenberg, who made a brilliant film out of “Crash” and whose 1975 debut “Shivers” shared more than a few thematic similarities with “High-Rise”), it could have been transformed into a wicked satire that could have been just as fresh and relevant today as when the book was originally published. Instead, the end result is an awkward mess that will probably go down as one of the biggest wastes of promising source material that will make its way to the big screen this year. This is a case where you should definitely stick with the book and forget about the movie—too bad that Wheatley didn’t do the same.

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originally posted: 05/13/16 08:41:16
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2015 Fantastic Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2015 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 London Film Festival For more in the 2015 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2016 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2016 series, click here.

User Comments

8/06/18 Langano Somewhat hollow but kept me interested. 3 stars
3/26/17 M Erratic, surreal and amazing 5 stars
10/11/16 Louise Depressing - didn't like it 1 stars
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  13-May-2016 (R)
  DVD: 02-Aug-2016


  DVD: 02-Aug-2016

Directed by
  Ben Wheatley

Written by
  Amy Jump

  Tom Hiddleston
  Jeremy Irons
  Sienna Miller
  Luke Evans
  Elisabeth Moss
  James Purefoy

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