I haven’t read much J G Ballard in the last twenty-odd years, but as a teen and then young man, I gobbled up his more famous novels with gusto. Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974), and High Rise (1975), remain three of my favourite novels. Like many genre-enthusiasts, I have a strong interest in dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature, and reading High Rise when I was twelve or thirteen is certainly one of the fundamental building blocks of who I am today.
When I saw David Cronenberg’s Crash back in 1997, I thought it was a solid attempt, but it didn’t quite work for me, mostly because post-Dead Ringers (1988) Cronenberg has been hit or miss for me. Crash, like 1991’s Naked Lunch, seemed more the work of a director seeking to escape his past and emerge with a new auteur status: both movies felt like someone trying too hard to prove something to old detractors.
The director of High Rise, Ben Wheatley, is someone still near the beginning of his filmography, and a prior effort, Kill List (2011), was the work of young, confident director. I recall watching it on the recommendation of a friend, and though I had some issues with it, I was mostly impressed. I wondered how long before he’d go Hollywood as is the case with young directors who seem to hit the ground running. He hasn’t gone there yet, but High Rise is by far his biggest project to date.
Starring Tom Hiddleston (Only Lovers Left ALive), the movie is mostly a good adaptation of the book, but suffers badly from poor pacing in the second half. Hiddleston, not an actor whose work I will rush to see, is a simultaneously perfect and uninspired choice to play Robert Laing, the protagonist. Perfect, because Laing is a prototypical Ballard protagonist; educated and aloof, who comes to see the world for what it really is via the lens of a new acquaintance or new set of circumstances, and this is Hiddleston’s forte. Laing is as emotionally detached as Ballard, the protagonist of Crash, and Maitland of Concrete Island, and in Hiddleston the casting is spot on. Hiddleston strikes me as a throwback to the kind of actor England produced in the 60s and 70s – long on public-school self control, short on audience identification. To me, this also makes for uninspired casting. In Laing, Hiddleston feels like he’s playing to type. A more adventurous casting might have put Daniel Craig or Idris Elba in the role.
The big draw for me, however, was Luke Evans, in a revelatory, unrestrained performance as Richard Wilder, one of the blue collar, lower floor residents. Evans’s performance is so striking I was reminded of early Malcolm McDowell, so in that respect, Evans’s performance is a throwback also, to the kitchen sink dramas of the 60s and 70s. It’s raw and powerful, in complete contrast to Hiddleston, who maintains his demeanour throughout the madness that unfolds in Act 2.
As a movie, as a parable, the story works just fine. There’s no need to point out the illogical fallacies within the story because they exist for a reason. Wheatley’s direction is similarly just fine. My main problem here is with the script, by Amy Jump. It seems pretty matter-of-fact and scenes feel longer than they should, and parts of it felt almost repetitive, although I did watch this pretty late on a Friday night, and my gears were winding down for the day.
Other than Luke Evans’s standout performance, special mention should go to the designers of this movie – I don’t think I’ve seen many recent movies that are set in the 70s that feel as though they were actually made in that period. I was stunned by how authentic this movie seemed, both in set design and cinematography. It was almost like watching the movie that Gerry and Sylvia Anderson never made for Channel 4’s notorious “red triangle” series of films in the mid 80s.
A good attempt to capture the essence of Ballard but Hiddleston’s patented delivery and a poorly paced screenplay somewhat work against the subversively better elements.