Directed by Ben Wheatley
Based on the novel by J.G. Ballard
Screenplay by Amy Jump
Tom Hiddleston – Dr Robert Laing
Jeremy Irons – Anthony Royal, the architect
Keeley Hawes – Ann Royal
Sienna Miller- Charlotte Melville
Luke Evans – Richard Wilder
Elizabeth Moss – Helen Wilder
Peter Ferdinando – Cosgrove
James Purefoy- Pangbourne
Augustus Prew- Munrow
Sienna Guillory – Jane, a famous actress
Reece Sheersmith – Steele
Enzo Cilenti – Talbot
Louise Suc – Toby
Dan Renton Skinner- Simmons
Stacy Martin – Fay
Tony Way – Robert, the caretaker
The nearest screen this came to us on first run was 35 miles away. The strange thing is that it was released just as The Night Manager serial starring Tom Hiddleston had audiences locked to the Sunday night screens, and the press were busily listing him as the next James Bond. The Night Manager with Hiddlestone was rapidly followed on TV by The Durrells starring Keeley Hawes, who plays the architect’s wife in this. Plenty of Sunday Night TV reference then.
I checked out the rating the week after release, and apparently it was the tenth most popular film that week. Nevertheless, we had to wait for it to hit the second run at Poole Lighthouse. We soon realized why our local multiplex had avoided it. A review on line said eight people walked out halfway. We lost four, but then that was out of only about twenty-five. The walk-out factor is high.
Dr Laing’s dream sequence with air hostesses
It’s a science fiction film, but set in the early 1970s. It is bookended by Dr Laing cooking and eating a white pedigree husky on his 25th floor balcony in a high rise block. The dog belongs to the architect who designed the block, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). We then flashback three months, and live through the building’s entropy, and the decay of all who live there. Not only does everything in the building start to break down, but the occupants descend into savagery along with it. The 40 floor high rise is a microcosm of society, with the unsubtly named architect Royal living on the 40th floor with an elaborate semi-Versailles roof garden. The roof garden is his wife Ann’s (Keeley Hawes) toy, and she keeps a black goat and a white horse up there.
Architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) at work on the 40th floor
The very rich live at the top (Munrow is a trainee doctor whose parents occupy the 39th floor). Professionals like brain surgeon Dr Laing (Tom Hiddlestone) live in the middle. The poorer, with families live on the bottom floors. It is a self-contained city with swimming pool (basement) and supermarket (15th floor). Dr Laing is an enigmatic new tenant in this dystopia, and soon makes the acquaintance of Charlotte from the floor above (26th) and Richard and Helen Wilder from the lower floors. Wilder works in TV, which enables him to go around with a video camera. Helen is heavily pregnant.
Dr Laing attends Anne Royal’s Versailles themed party on the 40th floor
How do you describe it? It’s a homage to/ pastiche of late 60s / early 70s cinema. Satyricon meets A Clockwork Orange, as directed by Michael Winner with elements of I’ll Never Forget Whatisname and Death Wish (both directed by Winner) with nods to many, many films of the period from Blow-Up to Bedazzled to Oh, Lucky, Man. Wilder is a Charles Bronson lookalike in hair and moustache. Munrow looked like late 60s David Hemmings in The Charge of The Light Brigade or Blow Up. Royal the architect is like the writer in A Clockwork Orange, not that he’s crippled but he does have a limp. Charlotte looked like 60s models Verushka in Blow Up or Penelope Tree (hair and clothes). Charlotte’s son Toby echoes Lord of The Flies. The walls of the Wilder apartment sport a Morgan- A Suitable Case for Treatment poster and a Che Guevara poster. The car park below the high rise was a Top Gear fans 1970 wet dream, with Rover 3500s, Rover 2000s, a Humber Sceptre and a Triumph Stag which bore the brunt of Munrow’s suicidal plunge.
It’s a sixties / seventies feast of non-stop cigarettes, alcohol and dehumanized bonking. The costumes reminded us of the 2015 sitcom set in the seventies, The Kennedys, and Wilder reminded us of Tim in that sitcom. When Jane interrupts the orgy to ask “Which of you men are going to fuck me up the arse?” it’s Fellini and Pasolini full on. A lot of it is violent, vile or disgusting. Fortunately while nearly as sexist and violent towards women, it’s not as boring as is most of Pasolini.
Dr Laing (Tom Hiddlestone) first meets his neighbour, Charlotte (Sienna Miller) on the floor above
Tom Hiddleston has a special quality on film. As in The Night Manager he possesses a Greta Garbo face. You can read whatever you want into it. That really is a star quality. Luke Evans, as Wilder, is already garnering “best supporting actor” nominations.
For a modern film, the lack of ethnicity … Afro-Caribbean, African and Asian actors … is immediately striking. It’s as if they are really trying to evoke a late 60s feel (without Sidney Poitier). The production design is incredibly detailed. They designed everything in the supermarket to look of the era, with a nod to Sainsbury’s basic design philosophy at that time.
Production design: The supermarket on the 15th floor
The soundtrack referenced A Clockwork Orange with so much faux-classical music, but the really memorable track was a funereal paced version of ABBA’s SOS by Portishead. The OST album, by Clint Mansell has his instrumental stuff, but the Portishead track is missing.
A plus point, is that the children were kept in separate scenes from the orgies and violence, and indeed orgies of violence (except for Toby) and when Helen gives birth, they don’t attempt to use a real baby. Full marks there. There were nasty implied rapes, especially by two men on the 9 month pregnant Helen, but fortunately they took place off screen.
Richard Wilder (Luke Evans)
Bloopers? They’d revolve around dating. J.G. Ballard’s novel was published in 1975. I’d place this a few years earlier, but as it’s sci-fi, an exact date doesn’t matter. The cars on view are late 60s / early 70s. An M registration, as on Laing’s Triumph Stag, is 1973. 50p coins are mixed with pound notes, so it’s post-1969. Not important.
Did any of the production team actually daydream “This could be a major hit …” If so, they were deeply misguided, though they managed to pitch it to a superb British cast. It was filmed in Northern Ireland. It captured an era of British cinema expertly, an era we experienced fresh at the time and thought deeply meaningful. Let’s go nowhere near trying to explore the metaphors here … so, the architect is God and … what on earth was the Thatcher speech ending about? NO! We are not going there. We both felt embarrassed on exit … hey! we used to think stuff like this was really good! I sat through Pasolini films to the end. We keep getting tempted at the BFI bookshop by reissued “masterpieces” of the era. They’re inevitably disappointing, and often fondly remembered films (like Bedazzled) turn out to be dire on rewatching.This film has it all in there.
J.G. Ballard’s original book
It’s destined for a long life for film nerd dissection on DVD. For us, there’s the DVD or Blu-ray purchase test. Result? No, we’ve seen it. It was extremely well-filmed and in its way, fascinating, but seeing it once is enough.
SEE REVIEW BY BLACKPAINT with detailed references to films referenced.