Directed by: Ben Wheatley.
Written by: Amy Jump based on the novel by J.G. Ballard.
Starring: Tom Hiddleston (Laing), Jeremy Irons (Royal), Sienna Miller (Charlotte), Luke Evans (Wilder), Elisabeth Moss (Helen), James Purefoy (Pangbourne), Keeley Hawes (Ann), Peter Ferdinando (Cosgrove), Sienna Guillory (Jane), Reece Shearsmith (Steele), Enzo Cilenti (Talbot), Augustus Prew (Munrow), Dan Renton Skinner (Simmons).
Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise confirms a few things about the talented British filmmaker. The first is that he is utterly fearless in terms of what topics he’s going to explore, the graphicness of the violence and sex he depicts. The second is that he is a supremely gifted visual stylist – here appropriating some imagery from Stanley Kubrick, but still making it his own. His decision to keep the setting of Ballard’s novel – in the near future of the time when the novel was written in the 1970s – is great in any number of ways – it doesn’t have to strain for contemporary relevance (although it has it) and really does allow Wheatley to play with the idea of what was modern back then. The film really is a master class in production design that is both retro and futuristic. It confirms that Wheatley is gifted at switching tone from one moment to the next – his breakthrough film, Kill List, went from one kind of film to another in each of the three acts (the only connecting tissue is that all three acts are violent), his follow-up, Sightseers, was a pitch black comedy about a murdering British couple. In High-Rise, the film switches tones frequently, often in the same scene, and yet it all feels like the same movie. Unfortunately, it also confirms what is perhaps Wheatley’s biggest problem as a filmmaker – his weakness with narrative. The events of High-Rise are not always clear. But, while that is certainly a flaw, it isn’t a fatal one. After all, even if what sets off some incidents isn’t always clear, it’s still easy to understand class warfare.
The film opens after all the chaos the movie will depict has already happened. Tom Hiddleston plays Robert Laing, who is sitting on the balcony of his luxury apartment, in a building that looks like it has survived a riot, which is what it has. He’s cooking a dog’s leg over a spit and reflecting on everything that led him here, and everything that happened in the building over the last three hectic months – which will make up the bulk of the movie. We flash back to that time, when Laing moves into the luxury building, where the rich live at the top, and the poor at the bottom. Laing is closer to the top than the bottom, surely, but not in the upper echelon. He first meets his upstairs neighbor – Charlotte (Sienna Miller), who he is informed kind of holds everyone together. Everyone knows Charlotte. This is how he’ll meet Wilder (Luke Evans) – a documentary filmmaker from the lower floors, and his very pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss), and also how he’ll meet Royal (Jeremy Irons), who designed the building, and lives in ridiculous, opulent luxury in the penthouse, who has everything he could ever want – and yet his wife, Ann (Keeley Hawes) is still not satisfied.
Hiddleston is in fine form as Laing – who is a good conduit for the audience, neither too high nor too low – and an almost passive character, who doesn’t really take sides. In many movies, this would make him a dull character – but Hiddleston plays him well – he’s more amused by everything around him than anything else, until he starts to slowly slip into insanity, with the rest of the building (although his insanity is perhaps a little bit more private). Hiddleston is always great as Loki in The Avengers movies, but he’s become one of those actors who I look forward to seeing in almost anything. He is well supported by the cast – Sienna Miller, having a welcome career resurgence in the last few years, who is sexy as hell as Charlotte, but who gradually becomes more than that, Luke Evans, all pent-up, class resentment and rage and Elisabeth Moss, doing a fine British accent, and trying hard to be the dutiful housewife. Some of the performances by the upper class – including Irons, Hawes and James Purefoy – pour it on a little too thick for me, but then again, High-Rise is not really about subtlety.
High-Rise has a few problems in it – perhaps most notably that after about an hour or so, the film has said everything it really has to say, and then just keeps going for another hour. This would be a bigger a problem if Wheatley’s style, and the performances, didn’t keep the movie afloat – both as a supreme entertainment, as a disturbing allegory. The political side of the movie is admittedly rather simple –and generic enough that you could use it to attack anyone from Margaret Thatcher (perhaps the intended target) to Donald Trump, or hell, even Bernie Sanders. This dulls the political impact just a little.
Yet, what Wheatley is able to do from the beginning to end of High-Rise is make a film that is entertaining, funny, disturbing and highly stylized. He’s keeping a lot of balls in the air during High-Rise, and for the most part, he keeps them there throughout. High-Rise is a fascinating movie – Wheatley nails Ballard’s tricky tone better than perhaps anyone else has (I think Cronenberg’s Crash is a better film – but it’s as much Cronenberg as it is Ballard), and the chaos Wheatley puts on screen is wonderful. Films like High-Rise are bound to have flaws – but it’s not the flaws of the film you will remember.