High-Rise: Audacious Masterpiece or Underwhelming Mess? (some spoilers)

So I finally got to see Ben Wheatley's adaptation of High-Rise which I had been anticipating for some time (see blog of December 31). I have to say however, that I left the theatre in an state of ambivalence. In many ways the form in which Ballard's difficult novel has been translated to the screen should have really immersed and provoked me, yet I couldn't help feeling that the film was actually less than the sum of its parts.

On a positive note, one cannot help but be impressed by the visual audacity. Evoking a tone which amalgamated 70s kitsch, modernist brutalism and baroque fantasy, the beauty of the images, many of which are aesthetically mesmerising, imbues the social break-down with a ironic and sickening aura. Certain shots are slowed down almost to allow full contemplation of the beauty/horror, but this is counterposed with a lot of heavy editing between different scenes and characters. Wheatley plays with the visual metaphor of child's kaleidoscope both in specific framings and within the editing structure, which alludes to the drug fueled hedonism. There is a randomness to the collage of images, which on the one hand, reflects the chaos of societal disintegration, however for me it came at the expense of a build-up of any real tension.

As the film progressed, with all aspects of structural rule collapsing, the editing becomes more frenzied; and whereas one can see and understand that the director is fusing content with form here, the effect bordered on becoming incoherent and tiresome. Furthermore, obsession with individual images and overwrought editing led to an underdevelopment of the 'character' of the building itself; the brutalist architecture, the ultra-striated spaces, the cold uniformity of interiors, all could have been evoked much more centrally as the underpinning to the social hierarchy and, in turn, the cause of the social disintegration. The film's relentless cultivation of its form and style ended up getting in the way of a more allegorical exploration, which I was craving.

It is certainly the case that my familiarity with the book, and hence my preconceived expectations, were influencing me and perhaps in a negative way. The film doesn't attempt to answer obvious questions that I had when reading the book, i.e. why doesn't Laing just leave? Indeed, I think Wheatley's production design is aimed at offsetting such instrumental questions, and watching the film with a realist mindset is a non-starter. But that's fine. My memory of reading the text was of the nuanced yet prescient allusions to the influence of spatial organisation on behaviour, class distinctions, the inherent inequalities of capitalism, the narcissism of the modern subject, media and notion of spectacle, and the encroachment of technology on the human condition. Ballard was able to strike a balance between portentousness and satire, between intellectual substance and stylistic flair. This balance was, to me, somewhat uneven in the film. The social allegory was overwhelmed, rather than enhanced, by the film's aesthetics. Indeed, I wondered what those who hadn't read Ballard's novel would get this through the film. In the end I felt that, as with many adaptations, High-Rise might have worked better if it had taken the novel as a reference point rather than attempting to be so faithful.

My reaction to the cast, or perhaps more accurately the characterisation, added to my somewhat exasperated reaction. Tom Hiddlestone was very good as Laing showing a sense of uncertainty in negotiating the social mores of his new surroundings: how immersion within and detachment from the unfolding situation was a comment on human adaptability and survival. The problem was, both visually and in terms of his approach to the role, he seemed be in a different film from everyone else. All the other actors were embodying a louche 1970s sensibility that went way over the top at times. James Purefoy and Luke Evans was a particular offender in this regard, but in all fairness this was perhaps more of an issue overall direction and tone. The film occasionally falls into the campy territory of BBC nostalgia trip Life on Mars (even before Keely Hawes turns up).  

These moments undermined a sense of real darkness and savage political bite that I wanted the film to have. It is clear that High-Rise is very much indebted to A Clockwork Orange and the production design, soundtrack and cinematography also reminded me somewhat Nicolas Winding-Refn's Bronson. Visually, High-Rise can definitely compare but it is doesn't go as far as those films in terms of barbaric ruthlessness, cruel yet knowing humour or, particularly in terms of Kubrick classic, cultural pertinence.

The film has certainly had a polarising effect.  In reading other reviews there seems to be not much grey area between explicit praise and utter rejection. There were at least 6 walkouts in the screening I was in. I wonder whether this was anything to do with the postmortem face peeling, the dog roasting, the sexual violence, or whether they thought the film just didn't go anywhere,  all of which could be true. It's kind of how I felt.  My overarching sense, however, was of a film in which the obsession with surface and style choked the fundamental thematic and political underpinning. Because of this, it played as a visually stunning yet curiously dissatisfying retro mash-up which lacked the allegorical weight I really wanted it to possess.