2015; directed by Ben Wheatley; adapted by Amy Jump; 119 mins
How great to see two big, subversive British films on the same day and for them both to be so great and so diametrically opposed, stylistically! It’s good also that I was able to have a few hours’ gap between the two because I think had I gone straight into this after my emotional experience with Sunset Song, it would’ve tarnished my enjoyment.
Based on the 1975 novel by J.G. Ballard, the film follows Dr. Robert Laing as he moves into the brand new high-rise seeking escape and anonymity. However, the prying eyes and ears of all the residents means that he is soon being invited hither and thither to one social occasion after another. Meantime, power outages coupled with the richer residents getting special treatment begins to breed dissent among the poorer occupants, which is exacerbated by angry documentary-maker, Richard Wilder, setting the stage for a crazed descent into chaos, sex and violence!
I, like so many reviewers, bang on about directors so much and I am a huge fan of Ben Wheatley but hats off to producer Jeremy Thomas who, for donkey’s years, has been tirelessly supporting offbeat filmmakers such as Wheatley, Jim Jarmusch, Bernardo Bertolucci, David Cronenberg, Julien Temple and Nicolas Roeg (and there’s a lot of Roeg in here) to name but a few! This adaptation apparently has been his baby for forty years and good for him that he found the right director and a huge star willing to put their names to it.
On the subject of it’s star, whilst not in any way having a go because he’s fantastic, this is very much being sold as a Tom Hiddleston movie but it’s much more of an ensemble film than anyone’s telling you. Luke Evans, Peter Ferdinando, Keeley Hawes, Jeremy Irons, Stacy Martin, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Reece Shearsmith and Tony Way all get to make their marks because the communal (for want of a better word) life of the high-rise dictates that there is always going to be people in each other’s business. There’s the pedants, the rabble-rousers, the elitists, the workers, the children, the isolated and the cheaters. All given enough rope, all partly responsible for the downfall of this locked-off society.
What’s interesting is that I never questioned til quite late on, why no one ever thinks to just leave the building. It’s perfectly fine to do so and nothing’s stopping them. Maybe it’s just because the characters are so intent on winning against each other (which chimes with a late speech about capitalism) that they refuse to see escape as a viable option.
Part of what adds to that idea is the constant tearing apart of British, particularly English, social mores. It’s also what makes it so funny and I have to credit my mate, Corey Humm, who came with me, for goading me to laugh as much as I did, because, as a fellow comedian uninhibited by being an art film twat, he laughed a lot during it and it loosened me up to laugh more too. The film’s humour starts off picking away at social misunderstandings and bigotry (“I’m an orthodontist, not a homosexual!”) and goes fucking black as the English try to keep to ‘the done thing’ in this anarchic hell hole (“He’s raping people he’s not supposed to”)!
How the film gets away with this is really down to the director; Wheatley has proven in no time at all that he is a master of tone. Somehow, he leaps from relatable comedy to grim tragedy with the greatest of ease. I don’t really know how he does it but it may be something to do with that fact that whatever he does, wherever he goes (be it folk horror, campervanning serial killer comedy or 17th century drug dream) there are always tangible, believable characters who you sort-of know from real life. Like a demonic Mike Leigh.
With baroque, operatic versions of ABBA songs to creep you the fuck out, Stacy Martin’s checkout girl ranting in French and the strange recurring motif of animals, this is a fantastically weird film. Evans is brutally dangerous as Wilder (nice to hear him talking in his native Welsh accent too) and Miller is strong and confident as Charlotte Melville, a woman with a lot of fingers in a lot more pies than it first appears. Finally, great credit should go to Hiddleston who has stepped into Wheatley’s distinctive world and totally fits. Eventually, you realise that Laing, who is our ostensible gateway to this madhouse, is as nuts and dangerous as everybody else… possibly more so!