Film Review: High Rise

steepleWe are delighted to welcome Jon Wallace back to the Gollancz Blog. Jon Wallace’s new books Steeple is out now in paperback . Jon Wallace returns to the blog today with a not too spoilery review of the film High Rise.

There’s a lot to like about Ben Wheatley’s High Rise. Adapting Ballard’s book is a natural fit for a filmmaker with an established interest in our latent capacity for bestial violence; in characters who toss away the moral compass to go sightseeing in the primal recesses of the mind, and indulge their basest urges. The adaptation, by Wheatley and Amy Jump remains surprisingly faithful to the book’s structure. It also manages to make alterations without bringing the whole thing crashing down.

The most striking additive the film brings is humour: Wheatley’s High Rise generates big, dark laughs, where Ballard’s is far from funny – its detached third person narrative has no real capacity for mirth: “tenants of high rises made no jokes about them” it says (though the implication is that this is inherently dangerous). Shame then that the part of Dentist Steele was apparently cut back so far. Evidently a number of scenes, which saw Reece Shearsmith perform unnecessary surgery on fellow tenants, have been lost. This is a pity, as we can imagine he might have added plenty more macabre, twisted laughs.

Still, the power of the movie is more than its humour. The film also packs more of an emotional punch; that’s in large part down to the power of great performances, which can make characters like Wilder human, and therefore more real than in the novel. Luke Evans based his superb performance partly on people he’s encountered in the pubs of the Valleys, and gives Wilder more texture than Ballard’s narration allows. Sienna Miller also does good work with Charlotte Melville, who has a little room to breathe beyond Laing and Wilder’s stories. Making a proper character of her son is also a nice touch, giving life to the children’s experience – absent from the novel.

Still, the film can’t help but lose much of the book’s potent, hypnotic effect. Wheatley’s account of the tower’s descent into barbarism attempts to reproduce Ballard’s hallucinatory psychic landscape through snap-shot visions of murder and sex, but can’t replicate the strange descriptive power of the book.

Ballard’s characters steadily lose grip on their identities. When a body falls past the balcony, Laing briefly wonders if it’s him. Mrs Wilder says ‘it’s almost as if these aren’t the people who really live here’. The Steeles are like a pair of secret agents, pretending to be married. At a party Cosgrove’s wife twists her hand in mid air, as if trying to adjust the picture of her newsreader husband. As the tower decays and violence mounts, Laing feels as if he is ‘exposing a more real version of himself’.

The film can’t really accommodate such ideas. Neither can it reproduce Ballard’s wonderful language about the connection residents feel to the tower. Laing feels as if he’s living ‘in the gondola of a ferris wheel’; Royal feels the ‘pent up time and space’ of each apartment beneath him; Laing’s sister ‘shakes like a seismograph’ with each tremor in the structure. The notion that the residents become more and more a part of the building, and in fact conspire to keep their regression secret, is rather lost. Instead the film concentrates on what feels more like social commentary.

That’s perfectly fine – towers, particularly in London, have taken on quite different characters to the rotting, modernist ‘streets in the sky’ of the seventies. There’s plenty of fun to be had exploring the way class structure struggles and breaks apart in the tower. Wheatley doesn’t like getting drawn into that discussion, and in fact denies that the film is commentary at all – but really, if you take the time to play Margaret Thatcher speeches in your movie, that position begins to look a little weak.

Still, the movie is well worth the trip. Tackling a work like High Rise was only ever going to be a difficult job, and this is a far better depiction of Ballard’s realm of ‘deviant impulses’ than we might have expected. Wheatley is making some very good, very British movies, and that’s something we can all be pretty chuffed about.

Jon’s second novel, Steeple, also takes place in a monstrous London skyscraper. It is out now in paperback (£8.99) and ebook (£5.99). Check out his website to learn more about his writing.