Ben Wheatley's 'High-Rise' Builds Suspense for Tom Hiddleston

By Strauss, Bob | Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), May 11, 2016 | Go to article overview

Ben Wheatley's 'High-Rise' Builds Suspense for Tom Hiddleston


Strauss, Bob, Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)


Elizabeth Moss and Tom Hiddleston in HIGH RISE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Cool kids know that the hottest thing in the past decade of British filmmaking is Ben Wheatley.

Usually working with his wife and screenwriter-editor Amy Jump, the director has turned out distinctive, low-budget takes on comic criminality ("Down Terrace," "Sightseers"), more serious felonies with a dash of Druidic horror ("Kill List") and the more psychedelic aspects of the English Civil War ("A Field in England").

Now Wheatley and Jump have taken to adapting their first literary work, the J.G. Ballard novel "High-Rise." The late English author, though wildly influential in the field of social dysfunction speculative fiction, hasn't enjoyed the same kind of cinematic footprint that his American equivalent Philip K. Dick has. But the few movies made from Ballard's work, such as Steven Spielberg's film of his wartime childhood memoir "Empire of the Sun" and David Cronenberg's take on his literally autoerotic "Crash," tend to leave long, disturbing impressions.

The "High-Rise" film should do the same. Set in the mid-1970s when the novel was written, the action almost entirely takes place in an isolated, "ultramodern" for the time apartment tower. The building has its own supermarket and indoor Olympic-size pool. The rooftop is a garden so massive it can accommodate a horse (which it does), and is accessed through the penthouse occupied by the structure's architect/owner Royal (Jeremy Irons).

Not too many floors below, Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a desirable unit, and soon finds himself partaking in the debauchery of his upper floor twit neighbors. Lower down though, where the less- fortunate live, things are falling apart, and eventually the resulting unrest rides up the elevators. Abject infrastructure and social collapse notwithstanding, however, no one seems inclined to move out.

"In the book they decide that, no matter how crazy it gets, they're going to live in the tower and no one bothers them because it's outside of the city in a wasteland," Wheatley, who's in his early 40s, notes. "But you could say that Laing, Royal and some others are all the same character at different stages in their lives, or different elements of a single character, or that the building itself is a character and all the ensemble cast inside of it are the negotiation of a conversation of an idea that's being advanced.

"Or you could just say that it's a building that goes wrong and everyone fights," Wheatley cracks, "which is the easier one."

Wheatley's knack for comically puncturing his potential pomposity is part of what makes his productions such intelligent good fun. So does the approach he took with Jump, who wrote "High-Rise's" screenplay on spec for the rights-owner, respected producer Jeremy Thomas, following decades of others' failed attempts. It was Jump's idea, for example, to keep the story in a fictional 1970s, even though it's all about income inequality and housing difficulties contemporary Angelenos can relate to.

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"Oddly, this film is both period and science fiction," Wheatley points out, "but every film has to be relevant to now, to talk about this moment. …

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