Last month, I read this article on Hollywood.com about actor Tom Hiddleston being stuck in a "genre rut" because he has taken the lead in the upcoming film version of J.G. Ballard's "classic thriller" HIGH-RISE. Apologies to writer Jordan Smith, but it is in my own honest opinion that I don't think he has read HIGH-RISE. Yes, it is a thriller, but if I compare HIGH-RISE with films like those that Alfred Hitchcock had churned out, I don't believe this is a "classic thriller". Definitely, it's heavily psychological and, based on the re-read that I had done, I can understand why Hiddleston decided to take on the role of one of the lead characters (Yes, he is not the only "lead" in HIGH-RISE) in the movie version of the book.
In his interview with The Slate, director Ben Wheatley said that his wife and screenwriter Amy Jump "wanted to go back to the book, so it was straight back to the book." I am not sure just how faithful the script will be to Ballard's book.
HIGH-RISE IN A NUTSHELL
Just what is HIGH-RISE all about? There have been comparisons with William Golding's THE LORD OF THE FLIES and, yes, there are definitely some similarities, except that instead of an island, the story takes place in a 40-storey apartment building housing 2,000 tenants. While people are now accustomed to towering residential condominiums and may find the plot of the book amusing, it is still nonetheless a rather disturbing look on how a relatively closed environment packed with individuals with seething grudges can lead to deterioration in morals and brains. Of course, seeing that how said individuals (as are we) cannot live without basic building conveniences like elevators, air-conditioning, electricity, etc., which break down one by one due to both structural faults and human abuse, they find themselves deteriorating with the high-rise they have come to know as the REAL WORLD.
Actually, the first paragraph of the book is about Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston's character) reminiscing about the events that took place within the high-rise in a mere three months. It began with a wine bottle smashing on his balcony from a party that was taking place 50 feet above his head. From this incident, Laing notices the disturbing changes that are occurring in the high-rise and its residents, as evidenced by a drowned Afghan dog in a pool, the threats toward children who were attending a higher floor junior school, and later the death of a jeweler tenant. Eventually, violence and perversities (which, except for two instances, are largely implied) become a nightly routine in the high-rise, with the tenants dividing themselves into lower, middle and upper classes based on their floors in the building.
It is three men from these classes that "tell" the tale of the high-rise's deterioration and its tenants fall into madness, namely Richard Wilder, Anthony Royal and Laing. In fact, Wilder, Royal and Laing are also representative of the type of loonies that you will read about in HIGH-RISE. Take note though that the women in the book, although not considered as "narrative characters" also undergo a rather disturbing metamorphosis of their own.
THE LOWER AND UPPER CLASS CRAZIES
Let us first talk about Richard Wilder and Anthony Royal, the two other male leads in HIGH-RISE.
Richard Wilder is a hulking, muscular television producer from the high-rise's 2nd floor, and he is probably the type of lunatic that is commonly depicted in film and who we are most familiar with—ranting, raving, and violent. Because he comes from the lower floors, Wilder becomes obsessed with conquering the high-rise, specifically targeting Anthony Royal. So, after a botched first attempt, he steadily climbs up the high-rise with a movie camera in tow (because he believes he's making a documentary on the building's decline)—abandoning his wife and two boys (who themselves have also become mentally unhinged)—goading tenants into committing further acts of violence while also killing people and pets (he smothers a cat with a shower curtain and plans to eat a poodle who becomes his companion on his ascent of the building) and raping a couple of women along the way.
On the other hand, Anthony Royal is a different kind of lunatic. He is the crippled architect of the high-rise, living in a penthouse apartment at the very top 40th floor. As such, he thinks of himself as the "King", grievously affronted by the damage and brazen defilement of the high-rise and its special features that are his creation. When he and his cohorts beat up and send back down a crazy Wilder at his first attempt to reach the higher floors, Royal has essentially earned for himself a really scary stalker and adversary. There is also the matter that his neighbors, not to mention his young wife, gradually turn away from him. So, you now have a paranoid old man sitting at the very top of the high-rise, waiting for his executioner (Wilder).
THE MIDDLE CLASS CRAZY
We now go to Tom Hiddleston's character, Dr. Robert Laing, who lives in an apartment on the 25th floor, so that he is representative of the loonies of the middle class. While Laing is indeed a medical doctor, he is not a practicing one. He is instead a senior lecturer of physiology. He also helped in designing the calisthenics machine that Royal used for his rehab following his accident which left him crippled. Laing is recently divorced and he chose to live in the high-rise for its privacy, although not too private because living 3 floors below him is his older sister, Alice. Laing himself is not without his quirks. In the book, he is described as having a "fondness for pre-lunch cocktails, his nude sunbathing on the balcony (Do I hear fangirl squeals in the background?), and (a) generally raffish air."
As I mentioned earlier, Laing is the first one to notice that something was wrong in the high-rise after a wine bottle crashed onto his balcony. He also bore witness to other disturbing incidents that took place in the high-rise one after the other. Ultimately, Laing becomes physically, mentally and emotionally overwhelmed by the violence and perversions that have become a regular occurrence in the building.
Director Wheatley said about Laing in his interview, "Ballardian heroes are a tricky bunch, that's for sure. Look at [James] Spader in CRASH or even Christian Bale in EMPIRE OF THE SUN. They avoid, don't they, a lot of the time? They're tricky to pull off."
I would not personally say that Laing is a guy who "avoids"; he is more of a guy who adapts to the situation but at great cost to his sanity. Laing, by all appearances, seems like a nice, likeable, and helpful guy, but you can visibly see his deterioration by his physical appearance and the rather docile, submissive man that he becomes near the end of the book. Yes, there have been wishes from certain Hiddlestoners who want to see the actor with a beard. In the book, Laing starts out as a handsome, clean cut guy (In fact, there is one part in the book wherein Wilder is admiring Laing's body as he stands on the diving board before jumping into the swimming pool). Eventually, however, he turns into a malnourished, dirty, smelly, bearded tramp at the end (In my mind, he probably looks like a homeless Henry V).
Perhaps more startling than the change in the physical appearance would be Laing's mental deterioration, and this is probably what attracted Hiddleston to the character. Laing probably looks the most "normal" among the three leads, but have no doubt, the craziness is there, evidenced by his becoming psychologically numb and morally callous and even accepting to the violence going on around him.
One moment, he would be helping the other tenants of the middle floors in erecting and manning barricades; the next, he would be hiding frightened inside his apartment surrounded by a barricade of his own. Laing would then become a stalking hunter, raiding empty apartments for food or setting traps for dogs gone wild in the staircases of the high-rise (In fact, the very first paragraph of the book has Laing cooking Royal's poor Afghan "stuffed with garlic and herbs"), only later to be meekly following around his crazier and more violent neighbor, an orthodontic surgeon named Steele. By the end of the book, he is living with his crazy sister Alice and book reviewer Eleanor Powell, who both abuse and depend upon him for their survival. Basically speaking, Laing has surrendered to what is his ultimate perversion—that he wanted to be dominated by a woman (something which he had been denying to himself when he divorced his domineering wife). Suffice to say, this type of craziness—one that is neither completely looney or normal—is quite challenging to pull off, not to mention the heart-wrenching vulnerability that comes with the role.
Given his acting skills, I have no doubt that Hiddleston will be able to do an amazing performance as Laing. Maybe even Hollywood.com writer Jeremy Thomas might find himself eating his words.
However, if Wheatley and Jump are going to be faithful to the book, the film would definitely warrant an R-rating. If you're an animal lover like I am, you might find yourself getting very distressed by the acts of animal cruelty. It is these acts that have originally turned me off from reading the book again. It's bad enough to have an introduction wherein Laing is preparing a dog dish and then have Wilder corner and smother a terrified cat in a bathroom. Reading in the final chapter of Laing going through the recipes of an advanced culinary book while the dog he was going to cook is whining, knowing it was going to die and served on a platter, is just too difficult to stomach. And to have Hiddleston playing Laing…well…I guess that pretty much sums up my thoughts and misgivings about HIGH-RISE.
nude sunbathing ... well this film just got a whole lot more interesting