UK Release Date: 18th March 2016
Runtime: 119 minutes
Director: Ben Wheatley
Writer: Amy Jump
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Reece Shearsmith
Synopsis: Trapped within the confines of their own warped society, the residents of an apartment building descend into debauchery, violence and class warfare.
The filmography of Ben Wheatley has been a delightful example of what low-budget British filmmaking can achieve for the last few years. Films like the deeply unsettling Kill List and the darkly hilarious Sightseers have marked Wheatley out as a filmmaker with serious flair and a willingness to operate outside traditional genre boundaries. His latest project, High-Rise, is an adaptation of a supposedly unfilmable JG Ballard novel and seemed like a great chance for Wheatley to show what he can do with a starrier cast and a slightly larger budget. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite hold together.
Dr Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into an apartment midway up the glittering building of the title and soon meets architect Royal (Jeremy Irons). He is introduced to the bizarre social structure of the building through his interactions with Royal’s assistant Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and documentary filmmaker Wilder (Luke Evans). As the class divides become wider and wider, life in the building begins to degenerate into violence and anarchy, with Laing watching as his new life falls apart around him.
There’s a lot to like about High-Rise and kudos must go to Wheatley and his screenwriter Amy Jump for having the courage to tackle such an oddball work for the big screen. The story unfolds in chaotic style, which is well-depicted by the stylised strokes with which Wheatley paints his take on the universe. It’s all angular and drawn with straight lines, ensuring that the setting is just as spiky as the people within it.
I don’t work for you. I work for the building.
Tom Hiddleston stands at the centre of the madness, with a performance of exceptional control. This is a mild-mannered English gent with some of the sinister madness of Loki lurking within him, which appears to be unlocked and awakened as the residents of the high-rise start to turn feral. Jeremy Irons gives a similar performance of slightly restrained insanity, which makes the relationship between Laing and Royal plausible and indeed logical, even as society implodes around them.
The society is reasonably well-painted and the class war allegory is initially interesting. Unfortunately, as High-Rise devolves into the necessary orgy of violence, it seems to lose sight of its central idea and gets a little lost in the spilling of blood. It may well be the case that High-Rise is a film that rewards multiple viewings, but it completely obscures its meaning in the third act. It’s as if it repeatedly shows the audience the locked door behind which its message is contained, but never seems willing to hand over the key to it.
This opacity of meaning makes High-Rise something of a frustrating experience, even as the style and inventiveness with which the book is adapted is apparent. On a visual level, this feels like the culmination of everything Wheatley has been working towards with his oeuvre to date but it never quite coalesces in terms of themes or storytelling. It’s a film that gives the impression that it has something to say, but never quite says it clearly enough.
You just sit there… and think about what you’ve done.
Despite everything that it does right, High-Rise is unfortunately a film that drowns in its flaws. For all of the solid performances, including Luke Evans on manic, physical form, there’s something that doesn’t quite together, particularly as it all goes off the rails in the final act and Wheatley fights to keep control without losing sight of his message. It might not fall from the top of its building, but it certainly teeters on the edge.
Pop or Poop?
High-Rise is not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it’s more of an admirable swing and a miss. Hiddleston and Irons give standout performances and Wheatley directs with sinister energy as only he can, grappling with incredibly difficult subject matter. Unfortunately, the film’s never quite transparent enough with its subtext and loses the class war in amongst the wild carnage.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.