Specially commissioned by Manchester’s new cultural centre HOME to accompany the release of Ben Wheatley’s Ballard adaptation High Rise, Jason Wood and Simon Barker’s short film Always (crashing) is an abstract contemplation of the modern artefacts that fascinated the writer, infused with a dose of Chris Petit alienation. A car endlessly, obsessively circles around a car park to an inhumanly soothing ambient track, intercut with extracts from Ballard’s short story ‘Report on an unidentified space station’. In a way, this metal and concrete reverie is more post-Ballardian than Ballardian: the film eschews the collision between man and modern machine favoured by the writer; instead it loops around a world strangely devoid of people, the driver of the car a mere silhouette glimpsed through the window, framed by the lines and pillars of the car park, as if modernity had finally eliminated the human.
Always (crashing) screens with selected showings of High-Rise between 25 – 31 March 2016 only.
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans
Ben Wheatley’s Ballard adaptation deliriously embraces social breakdown in a dystopian past future.
We open on a doctor, Laing (Tom Hiddleston), clothes torn and paint-spattered, as he cooks a pedigree dog on an improvised barbecue on his balcony, after declining neighbour Steele (Reece Shearsmith)’s offer to have a tipple with a clearly dead man. Back: the doctor has moved into a flat nearer the top than the bottom of an ultramodern building that towers over its undeveloped commuter belt surroundings, the work of architect Mr Royal (Jeremy Irons), who lives at the penthouse/garden estate at its peak. It looks spectacular, but the cracks soon show. There are power outages. Rules are ignored. The technology isn’t working as it should. And there’s a growing sense of friction between floors. The toffs at the top are appalled at the likes of Laing showing up for a costumed ball with the wrong clothes and an inappropriately priced bottle of vino. And lower down the ladder, chippy cameraman Wilder (Luke Evans) bristles with revolutionary ire when he finds his kids are excluded from the swimming pool during an upper crust social. When Laing’s upstairs neighbour, the liberated, and resented Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) throws a party, it simmers with boozy anger and frustration. Things get out of hand. There’s a beating. A suicide. Rival parties are planned in retaliation. A collective madness starts to take hold. The residents venture out of the building less and less, and then not at all. Resources, food and wine are running out and are to be battled over. Pets become food. Society within the tower tears itself apart, and re-organises.
J.G. Ballard’s High Rise has long seemed the novel in his oeuvre begging most for cinematic adaptation (well, either High Rise or Concrete Island) – at least, after Cronenberg’s Crash made it viable to imagine any being filmed at all. It has neither the mega-budget requirements of his early SF, nor the gnomic intractability of The Atrocity Exhibition, but manages to fit his themes into a single location with a limited cast of characters. That said, it was always going to be odd. I’m amazed that what has finally emerged is this successful in capturing the flavour of the book, or at least a warped and woozy hybrid of Ballard and director Ben Wheatley/writer Amy Jump’s sensibilities.*
Initially the urban setting might seem to signal a departure from the folk horror beats that were building through Wheatley’s Kill List, Sightseers and especially A Field In England, but a recurring theme in that movement is the malign and strange affect of landscape on personality, which is an obsession Ballard shared. High Rise takes us away from the ancient outdoors to more modern interiors, but the creeping unease is the same. It isn’t some viral contagion or chemical that is causing the madness (or even the porno-parasites of David Cronenberg’s Shivers, which riffs on similar ideas). It’s the architecture. Royal wants his building to be ‘a crucible for change’, which it most definitely is, though clearly not the change he expects or desires. He can fret all he likes over whether he has ‘left out some vital element’ but it’s too late, the tower exerts its own logic, and there’s no stopping evolution. As the upper classes’ thuggish enforcer Simmons (Dan Renton Skinner) tells him, ‘I don’t work for you, I work for the building.’
The methodology of this madness is evoked through a million cuts. Wheatley sets up tightly edited rhythms within the film showing the rituals of the block dwellers as they go to and from work, shop, swim, ride the lifts and live their lives, and then quietly introduces disruptions, unsettling images that increase in frequency, the pattern of things changes, visual and verbal cues build from a subliminal wrongness into full blown lunacy. A telling tracking shot at the halfway mark takes from one end of a supermarket display to the other, going from fresh fruit to rotting mush. Before that, the party scene at Charlotte’s place is a marvel of drunken momentum and shifting tones, evoking Brit sex farce and brutal Alan Clark aggro along the way, and then suddenly changing gear for an alarming slow mo sequence of the coked up Wilder dancing, suddenly isolated in a strange tribal testosterone display, a bit of business that recurs in the penthouse apartment later in the story. In Jump’s excellent screenplay, the dialogue is initially dominated by the party chit chat and small talk, the flirty one-liners and bitter put-downs whereby the residents subtly and not so subtly jockey for status, but here it always seems to be freighted with double meaning, to the point where even a banal exchange in the tower’s supermarket, (‘keep the change’ – ‘there isn’t any’) feels loaded with portent.
In the novel, if I remember rightly, language breaks down to caveman grunting as the devolution takes hold. But here, deliciously, the barbarity goes hand in hand with a weirdly civilised eloquence. Thus the top floor is full of men discussing their insane and brutal plans for the suppression of the lower floors in language befitting a golf club or yachting marina, a rugger club bumptiousness that wholly fails to recognise the home counties Mad Max stylings of their current situation. There’s something hilariously inappropriate about somebody raising the sudden prevalence of rape, violence and factional warfare with ’I’d watch out if I were you, there’s some very unhappy bunnies bouncing about’.
It’s intoxicating…. with the emphasis on the toxic, it’s a bit of a phantasmagoria, cleverly weighted to keep you off balance and back footed. Most filmmakers making a tale this open to allegorical readings would surely decide to go for a vague and unspecified mise en scène. Instead, Wheatley very specifically anchors his High-Rise in the Britain of the mid to late 70s, with an exacting eye for detail, and cultural signifiers to the fore: there’s a swinging Alan Whicker lookalike, a copy of Action Comic (with the ‘Kids Rule OK’ cover), pound notes, indoor smoking, and not one but two cover versions of ABBA’s ‘S.O.S’. This seems appropriate, and not just because the novel dates from 1975. The film consciously evokes the 70s cinema of Lindsay Anderson, Buñuel, Roeg and Cammel, and works in that heady vein, being an artful treatment of difficult ideas rather than the usual elaborate treatment of banal ideas that dominates your modern multiplex. It’s dense and delirious, both in words and images, in a way that defies simple readings. The sexual politics alone would take a thesis to unpick, moving from swingin’ Carry On innuendo, through nasty assault and into a kind of maternal utopianism.
I’ve seen the film twice now, and think at the first viewing I was simply too dazzled for critical thinking. I just loved this combination of things, these performances, this dialogue, that music.** The second time, I still loved it, and I’d see it again in a heartbeat, but then I’ve been quite taken with everything Wheatley has put out, whilst being quite aware that not everybody feels the same; a press screening of Sightseers had me grinning from ear to ear, surrounded by people who made their loathing quite audible. Balls to them. You’re either on Wheatley’s wavelength… or you’re wrong. And I’ll fight anyone who says different. But maybe that’s the architecture talking.
*Jump has clearly worked her socks off trying to give the characters the motivations and story arcs required by modern cinema. Ballard was happier to work in a distinctly chillier, more oblique register. Horses for courses.
** Clint Mansell, playing a blinder, and some very well chosen tunes, The Portishead ‘SOS’ moment is particularly effective.
After acting in two of Ben Wheatley’s films – Kill List (2011) and Sightseers (2012) – and co-writing the latter, Steve Oram strikes hard with his first opus as director. Sightseers opened with a long series of moans uttered by the unhappy mother, and here Oram limits his dialogue to just that. The film starts with Oram and Tom Meeten (it would be pointless to give them names, even though each character is duly attributed one in the final credits) crossing the woods and performing a strange ritual of urinating on the picture of an ex-wife or girlfriend without uttering a single intelligible syllable, contenting themselves with expressive grunts and growls. This sets the scene for the remaining 80 minutes. For Aaaaaaaah! is a Planet of the Apes, the other way round. Rather than having the apes evolve to a near human level of civilisation, Oram prefers to bring Londoners down to their very primal selves.
Oram has embarked many of Wheatley’s crew on this low-budget project that manages to fuse two cornerstones of TV broadcasting: soap opera and wildlife documentary. Also caught in the adventure is Julian Rhind-Tutt playing an alpha male scoffing in front of a brand new plasma screen and playing video games; Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding from the surrealistic The Mighty Boosh; and Toyah Willcox, who played Miranda in Derek Jarman’s Tempest (1979) but also, prophetically, Monkey in Quadrophenia (1979), and who plays the leading female part. With Willcox came Robert Fripp, who happens to be her husband and who improvised a bewitching music that advantageously compensates the total absence of articulate dialogue. (And make sure you stay for the final credits if you are a King Crimson fan.)
Seeing Julian Rhind-Tutt going ape is a delight in itself, and most likely a turning point in his career, but beyond the comic effect of the concept, Oram shows how little our behaviour as well as family and social structures have evolved since we were apes ourselves. Although Oram denies any attempt at serious social criticism, the modern consumer society so perfectly fits the animal struggle for food, territory and a dominant position within the group that by the end of the film the rudimentary and limited communication between the characters sounds like an improvement over the compulsive use of the F-word in so many contemporary productions.
With his debut experiment, Oram vindicates the importance of slapstick comedy and fart jokes (aren’t they timeless after all?), and the final TV show compulsively enjoyed by the surviving homicidal outcast heralds tomorrow’s post-reality-television. Don’t say you haven’t been warned!
Cast: Reese Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Julian Barratt, Ryan Pope, Peter Ferdinando
One of the most exciting directors in contemporary British cinema, Ben Wheatley keeps on surprising his audience. Not one to repeat himself, he refreshed the tired British crime-thriller genre with his brilliant 2009 debut Down Terrace, following it up with the acclaimed horror/gangster tale hybrid Kill List in 2011 and the hilarious black comedy Sightseers in 2012. With A Field in England, Wheatley explores new territory again, delivering an astonishing psychedelic period piece, while innovating in terms of distribution, with the film released simultaneously in cinemas and on TV, DVD and Video On Demand.
Set during the English Civil War, A Field in England follows the cowardly clerk Whitehead (Reese Shearsmith) as he runs away from the battlefield in the company of Cutler (Ryan Pope), Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and Thrower (Julian Barratt). After consuming magic mushrooms, they come across Cutler’s master in the most unusual way (inspired by mushroom folklore, as Wheatley has explained). The master turns out to be the evil alchemist O’Neil (the splendidly sinister Michael Smiley), the man Whitehead’s own master sent him to hunt down after he stole precious documents from him. O’Neil is looking for a treasure buried in a field, and he and Cutler force the three deserters to help him find it.
Thereon follow surreal occurrences, strange transformations, unexplained resurrections, the intimation of dark deeds and a stunning hallucination sequence. Loose and experimental, the film is a little like a trip itself, with moments where nothing much happens making it feel like time is stretching, punctuated by startlingly visionary scenes. Wheatley conjures up horror out of pretty much nothing, with the unnerving sequence in which O’Neil subjects Whitehead to terrible unseen things inside his tent being the most astounding example.
The use of black and white photography fits the film well, adding an unreal, ghostly quality to the bucolic landscape. Regular occurrences of frozen, live tableaux of the characters contribute to the experimental feel. The trippy weirdness is mixed with humour, a constant ingredient in Wheatley’s films, although it is of a bawdier kind here, maybe to fit with the 17th-century setting. Not much is seen of that period, and just like in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990), the major event remains in the background, while the film focuses on marginal figures who play no part in the big historical drama unfolding nearby.
For all its wonderful inventiveness and thrilling moments, however, it has to be said that A Field in England is a film that requires patience and receptiveness on the part of the audience. There are longueurs and the film feels slight at times, not to mention that for those who know Wheatley’s previous films, it is hard not to hope for more horror and drama. Watching the trailer ‘They’re Over Here Devil!’, a sort of condensed orange-tinted distillation of A Field in England, you wish the whole film could have been as intense and demented as that. Despite its flaws, A Field in England is an original, adventurous, imaginative, compelling work, a rare enough thing in a British cinema stifled by formulaic scripts and timorous financing entities, to deserve being celebrated.
Cast: Neil Maskell, Michael Smiley, MyAnna Buring, Emma Fryer
Ben Wheatley’s second feature was one of the most eagerly awaited offerings at Film4 FrightFest on the August bank holiday weekend. Wheatley’s debut, Down Terrace, was a festival hit two years ago, and deservedly so. Tightly written, finely observed and darkly humorous, it mixed dysfunctional family drama with criminal elements in a refreshing take on the tired British gangster genre.
Kill List similarly combines gritty realism and crime film, but adds a sinister cult to the mix, not entirely wisely. It begins like a kitchen sink drama about the life of a work-shy hitman, Jay, who has blazing rows with his worried wife Shel and a son to provide for. Over a dinner party, his friend and partner Gal manages to convince him to go back to work. But as they go through their client’s kill list, Jay is shaken by what they discover about their targets and becomes increasingly psychotic, his violent behaviour fuelled by self-righteous moral indignation.
As in Down Terrace, the character study, the observation of family dynamics and male friendship, and the excellent dialogue are utterly compelling. But the introduction of the cult element seems unnecessary and unoriginal and does not quite blend with the rest of the story. It is never explained fully, and although mystery and ambiguity are entirely desirable in a film, it is not evocative enough to fire up the imagination. Despite this and an ending that feels tacked on, Kill List is thoroughly engaging for most of its running time and Ben Wheatley is clearly a talent to watch.
Watch the trailer:
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