Incoherent and misogynistic: High-Rise reviewed

Ben Wheatley isn’t much interested in narrative or character or women but he is keen on barbecued dogs and explosions of violence

19 March 2016

9:00 AM

19 March 2016

9:00 AM


15, Nationwide

High-Rise is Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel, and it is deeply unpleasant, if not deeply, deeply unpleasant. (Ideally, I would wish to repeat ‘deeply’ several hundred times, but I do not have the space.) Based on the dystopian notion of tower-block residents regressing into a primitive state once societal norms and the class structure are removed, it sounded promising, like an adult mirroring of Lord of the Flies. But Wheatley is so in love with his own visual style and excesses that all allegory and satire is lost while the violence escalates and women are beaten then raped. Misogyny with social commentary comments on misogyny, but without that it’s just misogyny served up for its entertainment value. That said, after the screening I shared a lift with a group of young men who declared it all ‘absolutely brilliant’, so you pays your money and takes your pick, although if you pays your money for this, I will think rather less of you.

The novel was written in 1975, which is when this is set, and it opens with the tower block’s newest resident, Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), who is sitting on his balcony, blood-splattered and eating dog. The action flashes back three months to the day Laing first moved in. How did he end up that blood-splattered and eating dog? I wanted to know. So this seemed promising too.

We move with Laing into the building which, we discover, is strictly divided along class lines although how this relates to what’s happening in the wider world we don’t know, as we’re never told. The poor working classes inhabit the lower floors. Laing is somewhere in the middle. One floor above lives Charlotte (Sienna Miller), a single mother. Below lives TV documentary maker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his wife, Helen (Elisabeth Moss). The top floors are reserved for the élite and Mr Royal (Jeremy Irons), who resides in an opulent penthouse with his wife (Keeley Hawes) and her horse (A Horse). The men, by the way, are referred to by their surnames — Laing!, Royal!, Wilder! — while the women don’t count like that. They only exist in relation to the men.

The imagery is initially arresting. The block itself is brutalist with a disturbing concrete outcrop at the top. The retro interiors are hyper-stylised and wonderful, with their shag carpets and op-art wallpapers. There is a fantastically decadent party, held on the top floor. As for the soundtrack, it’s often instrumental versions of Abba, which I can live with. But Wheatley does not communicate. Aside from a few power cuts affecting the lower floors, he does not communicate class tension, or even how this caste system works, day to day. (I haven’t read the novel, but have read about the novel, and Ballard is detailed on this. For example, the higher up you are, the closer you can park your car, but we’re not told any of this either.) I was desperate for exposition, for the first time ever, but Wheatley’s directorial style plunges the characters into various situations while we’re simply expected to get on with it, if we can.

And I could not. Wheatley’s not much interested in the narrative, so it’s frequently incoherent, and he’s not much interested in the characters, whom he doesn’t fix in our minds. (I had terrible problems figuring out who was who, particularly with the subsidiary characters, and didn’t care about any of them.) Also, no one starts out ‘normal’ and then degenerates, which would at least provide some kind of arc — they’re all doolally and hateful in the first instance. This is Wheatley’s first major film — after Kill List and Sightseers — and while it does visit some very dark places, it doesn’t have anything to say about inequality or social disorder or capitalism or anything at all. Instead, the tone is one of overegged farce, while the visuals fetishize the mounting rubbish, the marauding gangs, the explosions of violence, the dogs that are either drowned or barbecued, and the woman (Charlotte) who is brutally beaten prior to being raped, then ends up with Mr Royal on the top floor. (Why? No idea.) Laing, meanwhile, gets to have sex with both Helen and Charlotte, because, you know, what are they there for, otherwise?

The performances are all over the place too. Hiddleston, our Eton boy of the moment, is perfectly fine, if somewhat detached, but Evans? It’s as if Oliver Reed has gone mad. And now I am running out of space so can only say if this is an adaptation of Ballard’s book as is, then it’s a vile book, and if it isn’t, then Wheatley has somehow made it vile. Either way, High-Rise is deeply, deeply unpleasant.

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  • Lindsay Fulcher

    Oh dear! She doesn’t get Ballard does she? Perhaps she should read the book but then may be not.

    • Max Power

      I wonder what she thought of Kill List!

      • polidorisghost


    • polidorisghost

      To be fair to her she doesn’t get the film. I haven’t seen it yet but the film cannot be Ballard’s vision: It’s the director’s.

    • If you’ve seen the film you’ll know that there’s actually very little of Ballard in it to “get”.

      Great book, mediocre adaption.

  • Lindsay Fulcher

    I, too, was reminded of an adult Lord of The Flies, transposed to an urban jungle, but when I asked Ben Wheatley about this he said he had never seen Peter Brook’s film and, I’m guessing, had not read the book either so…

  • Interesting. The reviewer accuses the director of misogyny but makes no mention anywhere in the review that the film was actually written/adapted by a woman – the director’s regular (and by-him acknowledgedly equal) creative partner Amy Jump. Is it not misogynistic to discuss the male half of a partnership but not the female? …

    • Max Power

      I agree. This seems like a very badly researched review. Ross says that the working classes inhabit the lower floors but Ben Wheatley has pointed out that one of the residents at the bottom is a BBC documentary maker i.e. the lower floors are occupied by less well off middle class people. Also, Ross says the film is set in 1975 which is completely wrong. Again, Wheatley has said in interviews that the film (like the book) is set in a future that you might have imagined while living in 1975. When reviewers can’t get stuff like this right I don’t think you should trust their opinions. Ross also slips into the trap of thinking a film that includes violence against women or portrays misogynistic characters is itself misogynistic. Also, the criticism implicit in the title “Ben Wheatley isn’t much interested in narrative or character” suggests Ross hasn’t heard of the vast number of novelists, film makers etc. who aren’t interested in narrative or developing believable characters but who still manage to make interesting work.

      • polidorisghost

        “Ross also slips into the trap of thinking a film that includes violence
        against women or portrays misogynistic characters is itself

        She is careful to point out that she understands the distinction:
        “Misogyny with social commentary comments on misogyny, but without that
        it’s just misogyny served up for its entertainment value.”

  • I warned them not to be horrid to Mrs Thatcher.

  • Chris

    “Gee. There’s simply no way I can see how the retro-70s imagery and dream-like plotting of this film might apply as an allegorical portrayal of our own contemporary culture.”
    — Deborah ‘I am 12 and what is ‘atomization’?’ Ross

  • artemis in france

    A shame if this film is disappointing. I read the novel many years ago and was very affected by it. It’s very clever and evocative of an anarchic society where one has to be on the alert for every opportunity to guarantee survival and for every threat to one’s existence. Not an easy read, but an engrossing one.

    • TheDaiLlew

      I’ve seen it and thought it was pretty much bang-on. You might end up disagreeing, but I certainly wouldn’t let this review put you off.

  • Max Power

    The film isn’t set in 1975.

  • Lindsay Fulcher

    I suppose we, who like the film, should be grateful it hasn’t been banned by Westminster Council as Crash was.

  • polidorisghost

    Ballard isn’t misogynistic. He is just an unflinching observer. I can’t speak for the director, one way or the other, but I do find that many young men feel a need to put women in their place – Maybe they’ll grow out of it.

  • TheDaiLlew

    Or ‘How to Mistake a Film that’s Partly About Something for the Thing It’s Partly About’.

  • Maria Alcorlo

    Fantastic review. Very weak film, sensationalist execution, all style and no substance what-so-ever.

  • It’s not often that I’ve been tempted to walk out of a cinema from sheer BOREDOM, but I nearly did while watching High Rise.

    Wheatley tries his best to capture the mounting societal chaos of Ballard’s novel but he’s simply not an experienced enough (or, frankly, talented enough) director. The film is an confused – and confusing – mess from the off, and no amount of kitsch ’70s decor can save it.

    File next to: Dune.

  • Tom Druker

    I wasn’t aware that the novel was meant to be pleasant.
    Maybe give it a read.

  • Michael Mcghee

    What an awful tirade on a film that’s obviously passed you by. Perhaps give the subject matter a read before reviewing its on-screen counterpart. Maybe then you’ll understand why it’s written and directed in the manner chosen by Wheatly/Jump.

  • “all allegory and satire is lost while the violence escalates and women are beaten then raped. […] it’s just misogyny served up for its entertainment value.”

    An epitome of misogyny! In real life, in the given circumstances all the men would have preserved respectful ways towards women and would never have touched them. Take a look at history: never ever there happened anything of the kind during wars, sieges, invasions and in closed societies like the one depicted in the film.