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Ben Wheatley is best known as the director of 2012 black comedy Sightseers, in which a couple on a sightseeing tour of Yorkshire embark on a murder spree in their caravan. He thus seems an unlikely choice to direct a Film4-funded adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel High-Rise. But Wheatley brings his uniquely dark humour and vision to the project and explores his process in a Q&A session at Picturehouse Central last night.
Set in an ultra-modern high-rise apartment block, the characters are divided into social classes based on the location of their apartment. The ones at the top throw lavish drink-fueled parties whilst the ones on the lower floors struggle daily with rent.
The film has languished in development hell since the novel’s publication in 1975. Although the film taps into this time-frame – the men are clad in denim and sideburns, a woman rides into a party on a horse – it feels very apt in the current economic and social climate.
The film ostensibly follows newcomer to the high-rise Dr Robert Laing, played by Tom Hiddleston. Hiddleston has the physical height (he’s 6’2″) and the puppy dog eyes to showcase both an imposing physicality and a vulnerability. He’s also half naked a lot, which is always a win.
Although Laing is clearly the central character, the film instead moves into an exploration of the building itself, characterised as having a peculiar influence over its inhabitants. From the architect in his own Garden of Eden (Jeremy Irons) to the working class inhabitants (Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss), everyones struggles with their place in the high-rise.
Glossy as the film looks, it is underscored by an excellent soundtrack (by Arronofsky’s frequent collaborator Clint Mansell), as well as Wheatley’s knack for visceral sound effect. A hammer to a human skull, the high-pitched sounds of a body smashing into glass, the sickening crunches of fists into faces – the film never forgets its animalistic side and it’s all you can do to keep watching.
After the viewing, Ben Wheatley answered questions from the audience:
On the film’s reputation as being ‘unfilmable’:’I think a lot of films that get that label . . . aren’t unfilmable, they’re just difficult to film. Which is a different thing. If you look at Burroughs, a lot of that is considered unfilmable, especially Naked Lunch. But High-Rise had a linear narrative.’
On his work with creative partner (and wife) Amy Jump:
‘The BBC said the other day that I ‘allowed her’ to do the script. We’ve been working together for years so . . . if anything she allows me. She’s also the editor so I’d get in trouble if I messed with her script too much. We’re working on getting equal credits . . . getting the director and writer on the same card . . . it’s a step to getting that sort of equality.’
On working with high profile actors:
‘With actors…it doesn’t matter how big they are. When you’re on the set and filming they just get on with it. Usually they’re a famous actor because they’re good.’
The film was mad, dizzying, disgusting and a must-see. And please, for the love of God, release that string quartet cover of ABBA’s SOS. It’s been in my head all day.