Overview: Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves in to the luxury high-rise tower block, an isolated community cut off from the rest of society. Laing finds himself torn between the upper-class world of the building’s architect (Jeremy Irons) and the revolt of documentary filmmaker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans); his urgent desire to climb the social ladder conflicting with his humanity. As class tension rises and the higher floors begin to consolidate resources, the building fragments into violent groups. Magnet Releasing; 2015; Not Rated; 112 Minutes.
High Stakes: J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel has seen many attempts at adaptation over the years. The book’s significant lack of dialogue and strange narrative structure has led many of its fans to say it’s an impossible task. Enter Ben Wheatley, a British director who hit the ground running with a filmography diverse, bizarre, and utterly brilliant. In the last 7 years he has gone from kitchen-sink gangster dramas to mushroom-induced hallucinations set during the English Civil War. It’s fair to say that we never really know what we’re going to get from a Wheatley film, other than that it will likely be very dark and very funny. But in the case of High-Rise, it’s impossible to even know what to expect from the next scene. It is made with the same mad energy it is portraying, and so it always has the upper hand on its audience.
David Cronenberg was greatly influenced by Ballard, and even adapted one of his works himself in 1996’s Crash. While Cronenberg’s films are often deliberately cold and distant, Wheatley’s approach is to bring out the absurdist humour in the novel. Credit should be given to long-time collaborator Amy Jump, who had the difficult job of translating the text into a cinematic screenplay. The film is set in 1975, the same year that the book was first published, and the set design is fantastic. With the pull of bigger stars such as Tom Hiddleston, this is a bigger production than Wheatley and his team have dealt with before, and they put it to good use. If it weren’t for the recognisable actors, beautiful cinematography, and Portishead songs it would feel like a lost movie from the era, even as it calls attention to Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power and the effect that would have.
With Friends Like These: For a movie that approaches this dystopian vision with such a devilish glee, it is sold on its performances. The supporting cast is fantastic, with Elizabeth Moss as Wilder’s put-upon pregnant environmentalist wife, and Sienna Miller as the charismatic socialite attempting to unite floors with her vibrant parties. In fact, these scenes of dancing, drinking, and socialising are easily some of my favourite party scenes in any film, and the juxtaposition with the ridiculous baroque celebrations held on the higher floors serves as both a thematic through-line and simple entertainment. Luke Evans’ Wilder is the standout of the supporting actors, and after a series of throwaway roles in disappointing movies, it’s refreshing to see him let loose in the comfort of a good script and a talented director. Evans is full of rage and hurt pride, unable to restrain himself from escalating an already dangerous situation. Hiddleston’s character later refers to him as “the sanest man in the building”, which should give you some idea on the level of insanity the film hits.
Hiddleston is marvellous, and traverses Laing’s layers of madness, detachment and grief with an ease not held by most actors. He’s the middleman of the film in more ways than one, conflicted between different allegiances and yet mostly indifferent to the whole affair. He’s a fairly passive observer, visiting the absurdly beautiful gardens of the top floor with the same attitude he brings to the loud, messy children’s parties down below. He is human enough to be relatable, yet is often unsettling in his disinterest in the well-being of those around him. He is the self-sufficient modern man of Thatcher’s Britain, and the wider politics of the building are mostly just a nuisance. That’s not to say he isn’t expressive; as the frustration, humiliation and dehumanisation that come from his attempts to move beyond his allocated position are expertly conveyed in his performance. Much like the film, he’s never too much of one thing; impossible to completely pin down.
Class Warfare: The parallels between Capitalism and the relations between each floor are clear. Deprived of support, their frustrations blamed on everyone but those on top, and competition between each other engineered as a distraction from the real issues – you can see where this is going. But Wheatley isn’t interested in following this analogy all the way, instead taking tangents that are as entertaining as they are baffling. It’s a truly anarchic film in that it doesn’t want to be nailed down as anything for too long. . It’s anti-establishment in every facet, from the structure to the editing to the themes at play. Irons’ character attempts to figure out “where he went wrong” in the building’s design, but this is beside the point according to Wheatley and his hero. It’s deeply cynical (“I’m an extreme pessimist” Wheatley remarked in the Q&A afterwards) yet rebellious, not ready to give up the fight. But most importantly it’s in love with its characters, and gives them depth and idiosyncrasies that bring emotional weight into an absurd situation. There is still space for small, seemingly improvised character moments, and one of the best single-shot action scenes ever filmed.
Overall: High-Rise is shockingly dark, even for a Ben Wheatley film, and likely his funniest film. This film is definitely not for everyone, and will likely be divisive, but there is a specific madness to the proceedings that will keep you thinking about it long after the credits.