Belsize Park director Ben Wheatley on new film High Rise starring Tom Hiddleston
- Credit: Archant
Louie Freeman-Bassett talks to film director Ben Wheatley about growing up in Belsize Park and his dystopian vision of 70s Britain in High Rise.
“I think every school I’ve ever been to has been knocked down,” Ben Wheatley tells me as he reflects on his time at Haverstock School, “which is quite funny.”
Destruction is certainly a theme which colours the 44-year-old director’s films. From the small time gang murders of Down Terrace to the cultish crimes of Kill List and psychedelic witchery of A Field In England, Wheatley has always pointed his camera at the trauma and carnage which emerges from revolution.
Wheatley’s most recent offering is an adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise; a dystopian vision of middle and upper class society tearing itself apart within the confines of a tower block. Much like the book, Wheatley’s film focuses primarily on the characters of surgeon Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), documentary filmmaker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and the building’s architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons).
It’s not purely a book about class tension; more a look at how social convention and hierarchy restrict human beings; stressing and eventually cornering them until violence is their only escape.
“It’s a weird situation where it’s a book, a predicted fiction that is well past its sell by date,” Wheatley says, talking about the relevance of Ballard’s book today, “We are actually well beyond where Ballard was setting the book but increasingly it seems to be talking about now.
“I feel like we’re in a perpetual 70s and 80s with boom and bust, ecological disasters, terrorism and financial collapse – all things that are 70s themed and also current, it’s just that everyone steps to the left or to the right.”
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The novel is a remarkably good fit for Wheatley’s thematic concerns seen in his last four films. Kill List and Sight Seers in particular look at characters who slip into a bloody world of violence and, rather than experiencing the classical regret and repulsion, embrace their newly barbaric selves. It’s a theme which has become synonymous with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in literature, but something which cinema has explored extensively too in films like Ted Kotcheff’s Wake In Fright and Lindsay Anderson’s If.
Despite the precursors, there may be no more enduring an image in cinema of contended savagery than that of Hiddleston’s Laing calmly roasting a dog on his balcony at the beginning of High Rise.
Ballard seems to suit Wheatley’s visual style, too. His language is compact and specific, but still lush and vivid, with every word serving a purpose. This crisp detail is something Wheatley has translated brilliantly onto the screen, helped in no small part by his long-term cinematographer Laurie Rose.
High Rise is by no means an exact reflection of Ballard’s novel. It is infused with the ideas and experiences of the film’s writer (and Wheatley’s wife) Amy Jump. “I think that a lot of the heavy lifting was done by Amy Jump on the script… the film’s structure and musculature has come from Amy’s script, then I’ve pulled images from it and imagined images in it.”
Wheatley moved to Belsize Park aged seven and attended Haverstock before it was rebuilt a decade ago. Describing his frequent trips to the Everyman and Screen on the Hill as “an important part of my film education” he met Jump at an indie night at Camden’s KOKO (then Camden Palace).
She has been a constant presence as a writer and editor in his films since Kill List, yet rarely receives the praise she deserves for her essential role. Her stamp is clear on this film as she casts a much starker light on the politics of greed than the book. The glazed and trepidatious Helen Wilder (Elizabeth Moss) gains prominence as a symbol of generosity, and is in one instance criticised precisely for her reluctance to take.
Such political attitudes point towards Margaret Thatcher, the most divisive figure in modern political history, who came to power at the end of the 70s and whose voice echoes throughout the close of High Rise. It’s a period that holds special resonance for Wheatley.
“It’s kind of a bridge between the post-war version of Britain and the modern version of Britain that kind of starts with Thatcher coming to power.
“Being born in 1972 I’d be as old as one of the kids in the tower and Laing, Wilder, Charlotte and Helen are all the same age as my parents would have been at that point. So it’s a kind of re-looking at that generation because we know how that turned out and what happened.”
Despite its quite coherent vision, High Rise occasionally suffers from a lack of shape when the narrative gets lost in a deluge of dream-like sequences of debauchery.
There are also some awkward lines of dialogue which hinder the pace and break the atmosphere.
These are only cracks though, in an otherwise bold film which elegantly realises and updates Ballard’s vision of a modern society wilfully destroying itself.
As Wheatley embarks on his first project set abroad, High Rise feels like the end of the opening chapter in his directorial career.
His films have moved through the caravans, terraces and towers of England, and traversed epochal moments in its history to make a grim and honest assessment of a nation perpetually in conflict.
The Phoenix Cinema is hosting a Q&A session on March 18 with Ben Wheatley and one of its stars Reece Shearsmith. It starts at 6:30pm. Tickets range from £9.00 to £11.50.