Ben Wheatley’s ferociously literal take on JG Ballard’s teetering 1975 social satire is an uncompromising adaptation of a novel that might have benefitted from a total refurb. Like Paul Thomas Anderson’s 'Inherent Vice', it's an exquisite testament to cinema’s capacity to serve the written page. But is such loyalty always to a film's benefit?
The first surprise is Wheatley’s decision to set the novel’s futuristic scenario – residents of a swanky apartment building devolve into class-warring savages – within the book’s mid-’70s moment. Maybe the presence of mobile phones would have punctured Ballard’s fragile concept, which is already a little arch and dated. Whatever the reason, the result is gloriously retro: fitted three-piece suits, shagadelic furnishings and a Moog-satured score by Clint Mansell make the whole film feel like a Pink Floyd album cover come to life.
Adding much-needed affability is fine-boned Tom Hiddleston as Dr Robert Laing, new to the building and caught off-guard by his sexually voracious upstairs neighbour, Charlotte (Sienna Miller). Robert is soon invited to the thug-protected penthouse where, in a surreal 40th-floor garden complete with swaying trees and a galloping horse, he meets the complex’s purring architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), whose confidence in his 'crucible of change' will come to be shaken. Snobbery and animalistic urges eventually collide – a Ballard speciality – as the lower floors begin complaining and people start swan-diving off the balconies.
Wheatley does an inspired job with the buildup to his midfilm climax, a rowdy kids' party that spreads like a virus into the reserved swimming pool area, resulting in a dead pet, multiple humiliations and a scary amount of property damage. But then, in dutifully hitting its marks, 'High-Rise' becomes monotonous – a prisoner to its own gruesome escalation. You begin to hunger for Ballard’s rare bits of humour (Robert narrowly avoids getting flung off the roof by Royal's intervention: 'He owes me a game of squash!'), yet the tone sours quickly. Portishead contributes a chilly synth version of ABBA’s 'SOS' – a song used throughout – but the movie ultimately feels both too glib and too cut off to resonate beyond its chaotic interiors.