Synopsis: Tom Hiddleston stars in director Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel about the breakdown of society within a high-rise apartment complex
Director: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Reece Shearsmith
Genre: Horror / Drama
Country: United Kingdom
Release date: March 18, 2016
Running time: 119 mins
Adapted from a 1975 novel by J.G. Ballard, the fifth film from British director Ben Wheatley (in collaboration once again with writer, co-editor and partner Amy Jump) represents a significant leap forward both in scope and ambition, while retaining the director’s signature blend of grim suburban horror and dark humour that characterised his earlier films such as Down Terrace, Kill List and Sightseers.
Retaining the book’s 1970s setting, the film is a remarkably faithful adaptation that pulls no punches, subverting traditional narrative expectations to deliver a gripping, powerful experience that’s shockingly bleak, even by today’s standards.
‘Simmering class conflict’
Taking its cue from the book, the film opens with Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) sitting down to a meal of freshly barbecued dog before walking through the body-strewn, post-apocalyptic-looking corridors of his high-rise apartment building and reflecting on how things got to be that way.
Along with Laing we meet the building’s various residents, including penthouse-dwelling architect Royal (Jeremy Irons), Laing’s sexually voracious upstairs neighbour Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and predatory filmmaker Wilder (Luke Evans), who resides on the middle-class lower floors.
With the building organised along strictly hierarchical lines, the lower levels grow increasingly resentful of their upstairs neighbours and it isn’t long before simmering class conflict erupts into full-scale anarchy.
Throughout the film, a kaleidoscope – owned by Charlotte’s speccy young son, Toby (Louis Suc) – makes a number of significant appearances; in fact, the children’s toy holds the key to an understanding of the film, because as events spiral out of control within the building, the (frankly, astonishing) editing and story-telling becomes increasingly fragmented, convincingly portraying the residents’ collective descent into chaos.
To that end, Wheatley and Jump play several intriguing games with narrative expectations, not least in the fact that there are no easily likeable characters (it’s fair to say that the film won’t be to everyone’s tastes), while Laing is far from a traditional hero and essentially becomes a supporting player in his own story, spending a large chunk of the middle section off-screen.
Wheatley has assembled a magnificent cast and they respond, uniformly, with terrific, full-bodied performances, right down to the smallest bit part.
Amongst the main characters, Hiddleston is perfectly cast as Laing, bringing a cold, detached intelligence to the character that works brilliantly, while Evans delivers his best performance to date as Wilder and occasionally seems to be channelling ’60s-era Oliver Reed.
In addition, the ’70s-style production design is astonishingly detailed (accentuated by Laurie Rose’s striking cinematography) and there’s a superb score by Clint Mansell.
Uncompromising, exceptionally bleak and shot through with dark humour, this is an extraordinary piece of work that shows Wheatley at the very top of his game.