High-Rise: The Q’s, The A’s, The Review

Posted: May 18, 2016 in 2015 London Film Festival, Drama, Fantasy, Reviews
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High-RiseQ: How many times do you see a movie before you review it?

A: With few exceptions, one viewing is all I get before I pull the trigger. And, with even fewer exceptions, one viewing is generally all I need. And by that, I do not mean that I know all there is to know after a single screening. Rather, it’s unlikely that my basic opinion will change from that initial reaction. One notable exception is The Dark Knight. I’m not sure what it was, but my response after seeing it was, “Meh.” I’ve seen it twice since then and have been awestruck both times. Not sure if it my expectations were too high or if I was just having a bad day, but that’s one time when my first impression was not worth a damn. I really enjoyed Map to the Stars the first time I saw it and decided to use it as a critical experiment. I waited a week and then saw it again before writing a review. The additional viewing provided some nuance, particularly regarding performances, but had little effect on my overall evaluation. Otherwise, too many movies and too little time limits me to one shot per flick.

Another exception is High-Rise, which I also saw two times, but seven months apart. The first occasion was at the London Film Festival in October 2015 at the Gala which featured an appearance by the cast and crew and a sold-out theater. Despite as favorable a atmosphere as the premiere of a film could hope for, I was underwhelmed. While I had not read the J.G. Ballard novel on which it was based, I was familiar with Ballard’s work. In general, I thought of his style as a brilliant but bloodless rendering of humans being ground up by the gears of technology. His cool, distant style contrasts effectively with the striking horror of certain of his themes. The film conveys none of that. Instead of a bloodless approach, director Ben Wheatley focuses on viscera. The film is lousy with litter, excrement, and effluent. It’s both visually and aurally noisy.

I did not write a review of High-Rise after the October 2015 viewing for reasons that had nothing to do with the film, but there was something about it that lingered in my critical subconscious. The plot is deceptively simple – a high-rise apartment building degenerates into class warfare among the occupants. We follow the descent largely through the eyes of Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a doctor and new tenant of the building, with considerable time and attention also spent on Wilder (Luke Evans) who is meant to represent the working class,and Royal (Jeremy Irons), the architect of the building and one of the leaders of the upper class. Hiddleston is spot on in his portrayal; the other two are not so successful. Among the rest of the cast, Sienna Miller stands out as Laing’s upstairs neighbor, Charlotte, a single mom and go-to good time girl.

Q: When the material is adapted from a book, should a critic read it before seeing the film and incorporate it into the review?

I would say not only is it not necessary, having read the work that a film is based on can be a hindrance to both one’s enjoyment of the film and a standalone evaluation of the movie’s merits. I was very glad that I had not read Gone Girl before seeing the movie (although it seemed, at times, that I was the only one who had not read it). I have little doubt that I would have not enjoyed the film as much if I knew what was to come, and it is entirely possible that I would have felt differently about Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike’s performances if I carried preconceived notions of their characters into the theater.

That said, something about seeing High-Rise led me to reading the novel. If for no other reason, I wanted to see if my impressions of Ballad’s style and thematic approach were valid. I found them to be. Ballard is clinical in his depiction of the degradation of humans within the confined space of a residential tower. He is also quite brilliant in how he carries the story out. Ballard shows the breakdown into class warfare between the lower and upper floors as merely the first stage into a complete unraveling of human civilization. The building’s inhabitants go backward in development to gangs and then clans and finally isolated, makeshift family units. Taboos are smashed along the way. In the movie, Laing’s sister is dead. In the book, she becomes his lover.

Director Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump adapted Ballard’s work to their own ends which is their absolute prerogative. It is their film, but more significantly, it is their themes that play out. It does not seem to have been their intent to bring Ballard’s story to the screen, but instead to use the central conceit as a means to fashion their own political message. The ending, which features a character listening to a Margaret Thatcher speech, clearly did not come from a novel published in 1975. The novel also confirmed that Hiddleston had nailed Laing in his performance. One has to believes that Ballard would have offered his kudos. Wilder and Evans, meanwhile, had deviated sufficiently for their characterization in the book that Evans and Irons could be excused somewhat from their less successful appearances.

On the other hand, the tower block used for the exterior shots and the interior sets, both of which feature vintage brutalism architecture, are perfect in evoking Ballard’s descriptions of the site.

Q. Does seeing so many films during a festival cause them to blur together and make reviewing them difficult?

This is an excellent question, and one I continually wrestle with. Over the 12 days of a festival (the three major ones I try to attend annually are Berlinale, London, and Fantasy Film Fest), I will see between 35 and 40 movies. I generally jot down my notes between screenings, but sometimes wait until the end of the day. I then write the reviews days, weeks, or even months later. I have gone back to the theater and seen three films that were at London last fall, in part to see if my reaction to them had changed. One, of course, was High-Rise. Another was Green Room, which I liked almost exactly as much the second time around. The third was The Witch, which I liked the first time and loved the second. Overall, my reactions to the repeat screenings were in line with my initial sense. I will say that when viewing three-to-five films per day, responses tend to be more immediate and visceral. I have also discovered that the order in which the films are seen does not influence my opinion. I have had dry eyes and an aching back after seeing four movies in a theater only to be completely blown away by the fifth and final one in a given day. High-Rise was the third film I saw on the third day of the London Film Festival. Trumbo and Land of Mine were the other two. I find festivals very favorable toward the films screened. Directors and performers are often present, and festival audiences are less discerning than you might suspect.

Q. What’s the bottom line on High-Rise then after two viewings and one reading?

It’s a must see for Hiddleston fans. He’s terrific even as he slips further toward becoming the perennial good actor in the bad project. Otherwise, skip the film and read the book.


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