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Film Review: High-Rise


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As I’m finishing reading JG Ballard’s High-Rise novel, I wonder how and if the on-screen adaptation will manage to work. Surely, the only way it could would be to either tone down the wildest parts of the novel, and focus on the character’s psychology and the social hierarchy aspect of life on the High-Rise.

On the other hand, an approach dimming those aspects and emphasizing the grotesque, most disturbing aspect of Ballard’s classic could also make for an intriguing film.

Ben Wheatley chose the latter in his dark-humoured adaptation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do Ballard’s work justice.

Wheatley seems to have had fun in directing the film: giant orgies, stimulating slow-motion shots, and Hiddleston and a frightening Luke Evans doing their best dance moves are all present. ABBA’s SOS blasts at two different moments of the film: the first in a classical remix at an uber chic, upper-class party and the second time at a low-class, cocaine-filled one.

The cinematography of the film is definitely a highlight. I felt like making about 95% of the shots my Facebook cover photo. The vivid colours, Kubrick-esque symmetrical and organised shots during the first half of the film soon give rise to darker, messier shots, illustrating the downfall of the High-Rise.

However, the film sometimes feels as if those aesthetic elements overwhelm the plot and story itself. The book spends a great deal of time explaining why the high-rise is such a metaphor for social hierarchy: the higher-up residents get to park their cars closer to the building, etc. The breakdown of the edifice and its inhabitants happens gradually, making it easier for the reader to understand it.

In the film, everything seems to break lose after a single event, the suicide of one of the residents. This makes it less comprehensible for the viewer to understand the whole story, and consequently, it feels less involved.

With a bit of philosophising, the films’ apparent flaws could be seen as actual strength. This overly rapid and senseless decent into hell, can be seen as emphasising the absurdity and nihilism of the characters and of the story itself. Throughout the film, Dr. Laing (Hiddleston) is seen at the gym working out on a rowing machine. Near the end, the gym is completely destroyed, but Laing is seen obsessively continuing his workout on the remnants of the machine.

Wheatley seemed to have played on the senseless aspect of the novel. The residents, living in a building that provides them everything, seem to get bored of its perfection. This is, in the end, what brings them to go looking for trouble.

I was however; taken aback by a sex scene in the novel that becomes an awfully violent rape scene in the film. I understand that Wheatley had to make changes from the novel, but one may wonder if this one was really necessary.

Tom Hiddleston effortlessly portrays the detached yet charismatic Dr. Laing. Jeremy Irons is also a standout of the film: he plays the perplexing architect of the building Anthony Royal, living at the very top of the High-Rise.

The film’s great cast and stunning visuals are regrettably not enough to save the film from its lack of plotline and sometimes-downright silliness. Adapting Ballard’s novel was no easy task, and by emphasizing certain aspects of it and dimming others, Wheatley managed to create an intriguing film that has divided critics. It might not be a masterpiece, but it is still worth seeing.

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