Each month, we at FilmHounds take a look at a director’s back catalogue and pick their lowest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes and ask ourselves – why? Why is it their least loved among critics? Regardless, we attempt to see the good in it.
This Month: Ben Wheatley’s HIGH-RISE (2015)
Rating: 60% (with an audience score of 36%)
Ben Wheatley is not a director known for letting the audience off the hook easy. From his 2009 crime drama Down Terrace, to his his caustic 2018 comedy Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, he’s carved a name for himself with difficult, challenging and absurd tales that feel – even when set in the US – thoroughly British. Wheatley might be making the leap to more mainstream fare with adaptation of Rebecca (currently rated lower than High Rise, but with a higher audience score) touted as a possible awards film, and then a follow up to the computer-game blockbuster Tomb Raider, but his career that saw him mash up crime-thriller with horror in Kill List, serial killing with black comedy in Sightseers, as well as psychedelic horror with A Field in England and crime caper Free Fire has helped him carve a niche following among the stronger stomached audiences.
His 2015 film High-Rise is a difficult beast altogether, not only was it an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 that had stumped filmmakers like Nicolas Roeg, Richard Stanley and Vincenzo Natali. Writing the screenplay, Wheatley’s partner in both film and in life Amy Jump opted to keep the retro-future feel of the novel, and so while set in the “future” – though unspecified – it has a distinctly 70s feel. It’s the 70s version of the future down to clothes, music, and even hair styles.
This, more than other work by Wheatley, looked to be a mainstream film. It had a much more mainstream cast for one; in the lead role of Dr Robert Laing, through whose eyes we witness the luxury apartment building descend into chaos, Wheatley cast Tom Hiddleston, who was still riding that Marvel Cinematic Universe high, as well as extreme popularity thanks to his theatre work and the BBC miniseries The Night Manager. The film at first pitches him as a charming, handsome bachelor, well-to-do and in perfect place for the high-flying upper levels of the building. However, the darkness shown in his character might have been too at odds for people who were seeing the film because they loved Hiddleston as devilish baddie Loki from the blockbuster franchise. Laing’s descent into madness isn’t enjoyable, as the entire apartment block turns savage, it is he who we see affected the most and the most drastically.
Moreover, the film’s class warfare story, that Ballard was always interested in, might not translate to mainstream storytelling. The class structure in the UK, where the film was made and set, is different to places like the US. We’re talking about a version of class warfare that is pre-Thatcher, pre-Blair and pre-Iraq, and even with the inventions to make this future talk to the now, it’s incredibly rooted in the 70s view of the UK. Unlike other visions of the future, this isn’t the neon-drenched, rainy cities of the 80s, nor the steampunk, art deco ideals of the 50s/60s. The 70s are a much darker time, and so the future is much more drab. The classism, perhaps best seen through Luke Evans’ Richard Wilder and his pregnant wife Helen, speaks to a certain type of “you’ve never had it so good” style of British capitalism that still sought to keep certain barriers up.
In the form of Anthony Royal, the architect of the high rise project, who lives atop everyone in the penthouse, we see someone who is corrupt, and yet able to charm. Royal isn’t called Royal for no reason, his surname is an indication of who he is. We see him lording it over everyone else, throwing lavish parties and playing squash. The issue is that. unlike most futuristic stories, Royal is charming; he is a perfect stand-in for politics, who flaunt rules and common decency in lieu of excessive affairs, corruption and mob rule. Royal’s harem of women that worship him, his snobby wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) and even the fact that it’s implied he pays off the police to allow his social experiment to continue all play to a belief that politicians or royalty are above the law. Even with these facts, it’s hard not to be charmed by him – perhaps because he’s played by Jeremy Irons with delicious relish, but more likely it’s due to the fact that you buy into his belief that the building can bring about change.
This lack of a truly detestable villain and the fact that Laing is somewhat passive in his role as the audience’s eyes into this world make the film a difficult sell to an audience, especially mainstream audiences who perhaps want more simplistic storytelling. The film also doesn’t revel in excess as much as it could, even though a lavish party scene is shown, and we see Laing enjoying some sexy time with air hostesses, the film is much more interested in looking at the breakdown of this mini-society. A scene that plays out to a Portishead cover of Abba’s S.O.S. in haunting, sombre fashion continues this trend of warping joyful things into the melancholic and horrific, though the cover is simply fantastic.
With that said, High-Rise remains Wheatley’s most confident film as a filmmaker, and the strength of his conviction to make the film a 70s-inspired future devoid of current day allure is one that should be commended. It’s a film that feels as if it keeps coming back to relevance each time the discussion of housing in the UK comes up, the gulf between rich and poor is, after all, only paper thin.