Review: High-Rise

Revolution of the rent class!

high rise

Perhaps it was something about the other guests, but Tom got the impression that his £10 bottle of wine from Tesco just wasn’t going to cut it …

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writer(s): Amy Jump, J.G. Ballard (novel)

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keely Hawes, Reece Shearsmith

Trailer – click here

Synopsis

After Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a retro-futuristic high-rise building, in a retro-futuristic/1970s version of London, he finds that the residents are classed by floors; the poorest living on the lower levels, while the rich party on the penthouse levels. Despite befriending the architect of the high-rise, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), Laing can’t avoid being sucked into the class warfare that develops between the floors, a class war that quickly descends into violence, debauchery and general chaos.

Main review

High-Rise is a very odd piece of cinema. It’s visually striking, thematically current and blackly comic, yet it feels like a fever dream, in which all perceptions should be questioned. Based on the book by J.G. Ballard, High-Rise was deemed to be unfilmable for many years. It’s not surprising to see why. The book was basically an allegory about British society, just before it was about to embrace Thatcherism and as such, its narrative was a bit all over the place. The same can be said of Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s adaptation. Story wise, things can be hard to follow, but as a piece of pure cinema, High-Rise is still memorising.

Much 0f this is down to a slick use of editing, great performances from the ensemble cast and production design that really hits home the retro-future aesthetic. Furthermore, all of this was achieved on an extremely modest budget of around £5 million. Ben Wheatley is no novice to this sort of filmmaking. He famously made A Field in England for as little as £70,000. Like that film, High-Rise becomes more disturbing as the stakes escalate. Dogs meet a barbecued fate, the poor turn on the rich and someone gets bludgeoned by a BAFTA award. It’s that sort of film.

The film’s narrative moves through the actions of Tom Hiddleston’s sauve, but slightly sinister Dr. Laing, and while his own personal journey is easy to follow, the wider reasons for the tower block’s descent into anarchy are only explained away by ‘class tension’. It can be argued that perhaps this was inevitable, reflecting ideas of uprisings against an exploitative elite, but High-Rise isn’t nuanced enough in getting this across. The film is far more interested in indulging in a series of tableaux, which while elegant, just feel like window dressing.

The novel on which High-Rise is based is very complex, so perhaps any film adaptation would never truly reflect what the novel was trying to say. However, Ben Wheatley’s effort is a noble attempt to tackle the material. High-Rise is beautiful to look at, the descent into chaos is hilarious to watch and the cast do a great job showing the divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. It’s just a shame that there isn’t a bit more narrative meat to chew on. There’s certainly enough barbecued dog …

Pros

  • Tom Hiddleston’s cool, but also slightly sinister performance as Dr. Laing.
  • Elegant production design that really gives the film a ‘retro-1970s, yet somehow in the future’ feel.
  • An noble attempt at adapting a book that many deemed ‘unfilmable’.
  • Some excellent editing and direction that gives the film a distinctly dream-like quality.
  • ‘BAFTA him!’

Cons

  • The core message of the film appears to be muddled, perhaps a result of breaking down a very complex novel.
  • The film is sometimes more of a series of (elegant) tableaux, rather than a completely cohesive narrative.
  • As things become more chaotic, the film loses focus.

In a nutshell …

Stylistically, High-Rise is beautifully distinct and will linger in the mind for a long while. Yet, for all the bizarre imagery and its black sense of humour, the idea of an actual story gets a bit lost, as society descends into chaos. This may not be Wheatley’s best work, but at least he has ambition. Hopefully, High-Rise will give Wheatley more exposure in Hollywood.

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