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rochefort [Celluloid 09.27.15] United Kingdom scifi thriller dystopic



England, the 1970’s. Margaret Thatcher rules and the last vestiges of post-World War II optimism have been wiped away. Tight polyester and bell bottoms are omnipresent, the sexual revolution of the 60’s has given way to rampant debauchery, and everyone numbs themselves with sex, shopping and petty domestic obsession.

Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) has just moved into the perfect embodiment of the times: a state of the art tower block designed by reclusive architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), whose top floor penthouse is bigger than most mansions and even sports the occasional horse. Life in the high rise is full of the typical tenant squabbles and awkward social rituals at first. But from the beginning the tenants are bitterly aware of the building’s class differences, the poorer and less-respectable residents in the lower floors, the richer in the higher, and it only takes a handful of seemingly banal incidents to incite tensions among the floor classes, each banding into tribes. Laing, who lives on one of the middle floors, is caught between factions as they enter into all-out war and descend into madness.

While perhaps not as “unfilmable” a novel as one like “Naked Lunch”, J.G. Ballard’s “High Rise” is still a decidedly tough nut to crack in terms of cinematic adaptation, and rumors that this or that director are/were giving it a shot have persisted for more than a decade.

It took Ben Wheatley, a director who has built a solid body of work including “Kill List” and last year’s “A Field in England”, to finally bring the book to the big screen, and it’s an impressive feat for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most impressive of these is the way in which Wheatley has taken a highly respected work of speculative fiction and made it work as an incredibly well-paced piece of bizarro black comedy.

The novel is one of those works of literature that makes more and more sense the older you get and the more you revisit it, so it’s likely that the film will gain more and more of an audience over time, but upon first viewing it still manages to be an incredibly satisfying piece of visceral filmmaking, Amy Jump’s script deftly balancing shock and sociopolitical commentary.

One of the biggest challenges in adapting “High Rise” was always going to be the approach to character. Ballard’s characters are often people who seem respectable on the surface, albeit marginally peculiar, but harbor intense internal obsessions and often have an aloof quality that can make them extremely unsympathetic. Most readers of “High Rise” or “Crash” would prefer to keep a safe distance rather than admit we might be able to relate. Thankfully, Wheatley isn’t interested in homogenizing; he fully commits to the insanity and insists his cast do the same, and boy do they ever. Irons’ Royal is one of the nastiest characters he’s ever played, a manipulative genius as preoccupied with his meaningless routines as he is with the “mission” he believes his building represents.

Familiar faces like Elisabeth Moss, Sienna Miller, James Purefoy and Sienna Guillory dive into their respective roles with so much ferocity that one can’t help but wonder if they didn’t see themselves as evangelists for the book’s harshest lessons. Pretty fearless stuff, and nobody gets out without looking really, really ugly. Luke Evans, as Laing’s rowdy, macho neighbor Wilder, is definitely the biggest scene-chewer here. Wilder is the impulsive and ego-bruised braggart who stirs the pot of unrest in the story’s early chapters, but things quickly grow larger than he can control or comprehend. Evans does an excellent job of showing the self-doubt and helplessness of a man who has spent his whole life pretending to be a great deal more cocksure than he might have even wanted to be. Finally, Hiddleston, rapidly becoming one of modern cinema’s most watchable actors, takes what could have been the least interesting character in the film, the observer caught between warring tribes, and creates his most compelling character to date. Laing is a chameleon, capable of seemingly genuine empathy one minute and an almost sociopathic indifference the next, and Hiddleston never pushes the role too far in either direction.

If you’re the sort of person who believes civilization is a frail construct and maybe even an outright lie, then you’ll have no trouble finding affirmation of this in the arts. From Flannery O’Connor to Nathaniel West to Ballard himself, from “Lord of the Flies” to “Brazil”, authors and filmmakers have long been fascinated by the downward spiral into madness that can happen in the midst of everyday society, and audiences return again and again to these cynical cautionary tales in the same way we slow down to get a better look at the aftermath of a car wreck. Ballard’s “High Rise” came out in 1975, and it’s unsettling to note just how current its themes are, and even more unsettling to realize just how unsurprised we are by it. Transplant his tenants’ bitter discontent to the internet age and you won’t have to look hard to find the similarities, from the Occupy movement to the Ferguson riots to the typical chat room.

If there’s any comfort to be had, it’s in the possibility that cautionary tales are just that, cautionary, rather than prophetic, and in the catharsis of watching such an immediate and stunning telegram from the end of the world. What we do when we exit the theater is, of course, entirely up to us.



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