BY Dan Fox in Profiles | 11 MAR 16
Featured in
Issue 178


Ben Wheatley’s new J.G. Ballard adaptation continues his exploration of genre, class, comedy and violence

BY Dan Fox in Profiles | 11 MAR 16

Britain has always provided a home for violence – as a place to invade and a place for waging wars of land, religion and trade. And, more commonly, for the traditional sport of what Alex, the delinquent narrator of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962), called ‘the old ultraviolence’. The casual brutality of the street; beatings on the night bus home; football hooligans and fascist blockheads; inner-city gangs fighting turf wars; anonymous assaults in the city and brawls  outside the village pub. All of this  is given an extra shot of toxicity  by the psychological poisoning every citizen – from humble  to high-born – receives from the class system at birth. 

British filmmaker Ben Wheatley understands this well. His latest feature, released in the UK in March this year, adapts for the screen J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise, a powerful satire of class resentment in British culture. High-Rise tells the story of a modernist apartment block kitted out with every convenience – fitted kitchens and hi-tech waste disposal, a swimming pool and  a supermarket. It is designed by  a wealthy and aloof architect, who lives in a loveless marriage with his snobbish wife in the building’s penthouse. The high rise is segregated into three social strata:  the lower classes live near the bottom of the building, the middle classes halfway up and the higher echelons of society at the top.  We follow a new resident, pathologist Dr Robert Laing (played by Tom Hiddleston), as a series of minor infrastructural faults and power failures begin to plague  the building. Social resentments start to fester. The structural problems grow and, soon, the veneer of civility that keeps society in check starts to crack and class war breaks out. Each social stratum plots against the other. The supermarket is looted. Wild orgies are thrown. Laing’s work and life unravels. Within a matter of weeks, anarchy reigns.

Wheatley keeps the action in Ballard’s 1970s Britain, rather than transposing it to the present. It’s a world not unlike our own, convinced that technology will provide the answers to society’s troubles despite its damaging psychological effects. Wheatley evokes an era of bad haircuts and regressive social attitudes. He takes the cantilevered balconies and polished floors that epitomize today’s sentimental fondness for modernist architecture and fills the interiors with snobbery, machismo and misogyny. Yet, the art direction of the film also gives High-Rise a distracting aura of nostalgia (not helped by a jumbled soundtrack that skips from orchestral incidental music to period pop hits). Despite essentially being,  by Ballard’s definition, a sci-fi film, it suffers from the same problem of Todd Haynes’s Carol (2015), an adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt (1952): its attention to period accuracy in sets and costuming shouts too loudly over the rest of the film. Where Carol, however, maintains narrative consistency throughout, High-Rise has not translated so well onto screen. Finding myself lost at various points in the film, I wondered whether this was also an effect of adaptation. Ballard was a brilliant visionary, no doubt, but a flat prose stylist: the power of his writing was always in the idea rather than its execution on page. Wheatley has captured Ballard’s frightening vision of dog-eat-dog (and, in one scene, man-eat-dog) survivalism, but his translation is structurally tangled, as if the film were edited by committee.

Ben Wheatley, A Field in England, 2013, film still. Courtesy: British Film Institute and Picturehouse Entertainment

Since Wheatley’s 2009 debut, Down Terrace, an unheroic violence has run through all his films. With the help of his screenwriting partner and wife, Amy Jump, who has scripted three of his features, including High-Rise, each successive film has filtered this brutality through layers of homage. In High-Rise, the future-retro landscape of Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi masterpiece Brazil (1985) can be detected, as well as Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), which turned modernist Paris into a dystopic nightmare. Perhaps, too, there are traces of Richard Lester’s post-apocalypse black comedy, The Bed-Sitting Room (1969), in which the survivors of nuclear war, living amongst the rubble of London, attempt to continue pre-war life as normal.

Down Terrace marries gangster drama with kitchen-sink realism, rejecting the laddish glamour and misplaced period nostalgia that commonly shapes British gangland movies. (Last year’s Legend by Brian Helgeland, starring Tom Hardy in the roles of both Ronnie and Reggie Kray,  is a typical example.) Down Terrace tries to convey a nuanced portrait of a criminal family in Brighton, fusing the careful social observations found in the films of Mike Leigh to a frightening story of betrayal. Its 2011 follow-up, Kill List, at first appears to stay in the same key of crime – set against the socially depressed, anxious landscape of contemporary suburban Britain. Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley (a Wheatley regular, whose ability to leave audiences feeling as though they are under imminent threat makes him one of the most compelling actors to watch in contemporary British film) play for realism and impressive subtlety as two ex-soldiers earning money as contract killers, on behalf of a group of secretive and sinister upper-class men, while trying to keep their personal relationships together and their heads above water financially. But, just as you get comfortable with the idea that you’re watching a downbeat cousin to hit-man movies such as Mike Hodges’s Get Carter (1971) or Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges (2007), Wheatley drags the film screaming into the dark crypt of Hammer Pictures. What begins like a Ken Loach movie ends up closer to Robin Hardy’s singular 1973 horror film The Wicker Man, climaxing with pagan ritual and human sacrifice. (It’s worth noting that Wheatley has also directed recent episodes of the BBC’s long-running sci-fi series Doctor Who: a show that has never been afraid to shuttle from historical costume drama to deep-space thriller.)

A Field in England taps into a long tradition of film and television that depicts the British countryside as a site of occult energies.

Sightseers (2012) pays homage to Leigh’s hilarious, sharply observed Nuts in May (1975). Both films tell the story of an earnest young couple on a camping holiday in the British countryside, determined to enjoy themselves despite bad weather and their own intractable class resentments. But with gory relish, Sightseers introduces the trope of the couple on a killing spree: think Leonard Kastle and Donald Volkman’s The Honeymoon Killers (1969) or Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994).

Wheatley’s next movie will be Free Fire, a return to the crime genre – this time set in 1970s Boston. But his most original feature so far has been A Field in England, released in 2013. Set in the mid-17th-century, during the English Civil War, it tells the story of a group of army deserters who have come under the influence  of an alchemist, played by Smiley, who convinces the men to look for treasure buried in a field. The minds of the deserters are unravelled by the effects of magic mushrooms, paranoia and greed – not to mention the deeper social trauma of religious war in England at that time. Wheatley uses the mental instability of the characters to conjure a terrifying atmosphere. (One disarmingly simple scene depicts Reece Shearsmith tethered by rope to something or someone unseen inside a tent, his face transfixed in psychedelic rapture; the image is indelibly strange and frightening.) A Field in England feels as though it could be a TV play from the 1960s or ’70s; perhaps a supernatural tale in the vein of Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968) or Nigel Kneale’s Murrain (1975, a moving play about witchcraft, poverty and ageism). Although A Field in England taps into a long tradition of film and TV that depicts the British countryside as a site of occult energies, a form of rural sci-fi, it feels freer from genre than his earlier work.

Wheatley is a movie fan who arguably shares his approach with directors such as Quentin Tarantino or Joel and Ethan Coen, replaying through their work the midnight movies and video rentals they saw in their youth. But, like his contemporaries Andrea Arnold and Clio Barnard, he is also a filmmaker endeavouring to find new and strange ways of looking at the problems of class in contemporary Britain, attempting to grow British film into something more than just Jane Austen adaptations and sickly middle-class romantic comedies – and that is to be valued.

Dan Fox is a writer, filmmaker and musician. He is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (2016) and Limbo (2018), both published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and co-director of Other, Like Me: The Oral History of COUM Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle (2020).