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An ambitious new film adaptation starring Tom Hiddleston brings JG Ballard’s dystopian novel High-Rise to unsettling, darkly humorous life. David Gritten goes behind the scenes.
Suave and pencil-slim in a silvery-grey suit, Tom Hiddleston strolls languidly across the lawn of a picturesque garden, navigating between flower beds until he reaches a thatched barn at its very edge and pushes open the door. On this sunny August day, it is a glorious setting.
For the cameras tracking his progress, Hiddleston walks the walk four more times. It feels like a lovely, low-key, rather traditional scene – but in the completed High-Rise, a big-screen adaptation of JG Ballard’s 1975 novel, this location will be seen in an utterly different context.
Bangor Castle Walled Garden, 12 miles from Belfast and dating from the 1840s, is at ground level. But in High-Rise, thanks to digital effects, it appears 40 storeys up: an amazing rooftop garden crowning the cool, stylish London apartment block of the film’s title. In Ballard’s novel, set ‘five minutes in the future’, the high-rise is more than just a block of flats. Ben Wheatley, the film’s British director, notes, ‘It’s a metaphor. It’s a building; it’s also a man or a woman. It’s a country; it’s the world. It works on all those different levels.’
The story tracks the building’s rapid decline as its technology and services falter – lifts cease to work, fires break out, the in-house supermarket runs out of produce. The residents (played by the likes of Sienna Miller, Luke Evans and James Purefoy), defined by the level they occupy, turn feral, indulging in wild parties and rampant sex (not all of it consensual) while rioting to force their way up from lower floors and overthrow the established order. The high-rise, it appears, has that effect on people.
Into this cauldron steps Hiddleston’s sleek bachelor hero, Robert Laing, a successful physiologist. Hiddleston’s Laing, who takes an apartment on the 25th floor, is elegant, sophisticated and self-contained, a neutral observer. But as he comes to accept the startling shift in the residents’ behaviour, his own begins to change. ‘The impact of the building on his mind creates a volatility in him that’s very visible and dark,’ Hiddleston says.
The producer Jeremy Thomas, a veteran of some 70 films (including the Oscar-winning The Last Emperor), knew Ballard well and owned the film rights to High-Rise. He had wanted to adapt it for two decades, but ‘never managed to find a satisfactory combination of material and realistic budget size’.
Thomas had also produced the film adaptation of Ballard’s controversial novel Crash, about a group of people sexually aroused by car crashes, which, on its UK release in 1997, was banned by Westminster Council after a media outcry against it.
‘It’s been a long time coming,’ Thomas says. ‘I thought [High-Rise] was an amazing book when it was published – and it’s an amazing book today. Ballard was really prescient in his futurology.’
Wheatley approached Thomas and suggested it as a period piece – kept in the 1970s rather than treated as science fiction. It helped that in the past few years Wheatley’s reputation as a director has soared, thanks to low-budget films such as Down Terrace (2009), Kill List (2011) and Sightseers (2012) – all peppered with grisly murders and very dark humour.
A five-minute stroll from the walled garden is the old Bangor Castle Leisure Centre, built in 1973, a forbidding brutalist slab closed down a year before filming began. ‘We walked in here and found most of the film inside,’ Thomas says. ‘It has a swimming pool, a squash court and lots of corridors, all of which featured in scenes that had been written. So suddenly, we’re making the film in Northern Ireland.’
Wheatley is a decisive director who works at exceptional speed. ‘I think on the first day we got through 32 set-ups,’ Hiddleston says. ‘You’re just gunning through it; there’s a great momentum. You don’t have time to get complacent – you’re on your toes all the time. Ben is so easy and good-natured, but you finish the day and you have this extraordinary amount of footage. It’s been astonishing.’
Hiddleston enjoyed playing the transformation in Laing, initially detached and immaculate in his suit and crisp white shirts. ‘He wants this blank, fresh, new, clean, modern start in the high-rise,’ he says. Costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux tells me she aimed for a distinctive look for Hiddleston to anchor the film in its period. ‘We want it to be the 1970s, but subtler.’ She based Laing’s grey suit on George Lazenby’s look in his one and only Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, in 1969.
‘Tom seems to have that aura – tall, slim and elegant. He was hesitant about the longer jacket and wider lapels, but it’s totally a 1970s suit. Yet it has a narrow tie, which has to do with Laing feeling constricted.’
Laing’s facade crumbles as chaos spreads. ‘There’s a key scene when he walks out of his flat in a clean shirt,’ Hiddleston says, ‘then thinks again, goes back inside and changes into a dirty one – which he feels better represents who he is becoming. It’s a sort of breakdown, I suppose.’
Laing is a physiologist, so Hiddleston went to watch a real autopsy. ‘I watched them cut a man open,’ he recalls. ‘I couldn’t handle it. What overwhelmed me was the smell. I had to go outside and vomit. Then I went back in and found it fascinating to see the engineering of the human body. But you need a strong stomach for that stuff.’
Ballard’s novel is an extreme piece of work, and when the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, it divided critics. Thomas welcomes this. ‘I’ve always been led by taste – and I hope my taste is not going to let me down,’ he says. ‘I just try to make a film that’s interesting, high-quality but provocative. I want the material to provoke people.’
‘One never knows what will resonate with an audience,’ Irons says. ‘But I think it’s going to look extraordinary. I can’t think of another film like it.’ He is right. The film pulsates – with energy, colour, strangeness – and its anarchy has that Wheatley-an element of horror. It may well divide audiences, but it will stay with them.
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