Ben Wheatley’s High Rise is the screen adaption of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name. There have been numerous rumoured attempts to get this off the ground over the years, and director Ben Wheatley (Sightseers, A Field in England) is the one to finally manage it. Set in a version of the seventies that feels familiar but slightly out of kilter, the story revolves around a luxury tower block, designed by Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), and its newest tenant Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston).
This movie had flown under the radar for me, so I went in fairly blind, never having read the book, and only having watched the trailer a couple of days before the screening. I was expecting a somewhat dystopian tale, and going by the trailer, possibly a flavour of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the “one good man fighting the good fight” trope, but was left far more with the flavour of John Boorman’s Zardoz, only without the ever so fetching red nappy that Sean Connery sported.
The setup goes like this. Dr Laing has lost his sister, so is now alone in the world. A successful man, he’s decided that the High Rise is a good investment, and moves in on the twenty-fifth floor. We soon find that the building is an allegory for society. The poorer members of society, although not the working class, this is a luxury development remember, live in the lower floors, and the higher you are in its forty levels the more well off and higher in society you are, until you reach the penthouse, with the Architect, Anthony Royal, and his wife Ann Royal (Keeley Hawes), their surname being the most glaring signpost to their stature imaginable, just in case all the other pointers are a little too subtle for the consumer of this story. Laing is the conduit between the classes, used to allow us to examine the disintegration of this society, able to move between social strata without ever really being trusted by any of them.
Society’s disintegration will be of no surprise to anyone that has watched the trailer, and we are also dropped straight into the reality of it as the film starts with a feral Laing scavenging on his floor, leading to a “three months previously” title so we can watch as the film catches us up to the goings on. It’s so far, so seventies as this starts. Lots of bad interior decorating, drunken parties, sex, and Abba covers, but as the building starts to malfunction, and power is directed to the upper floors, the catalyst for the societal breakdown has arrived. I found this to be one of the weaknesses of the movie. The screenplay tries to make us feel like the High Rise is a character in itself, but it’s so stark and seventies in its design that it never manages that. Rather than a foreboding presence that you feel is having an influence on what is occurring, it just feels like a set. No matter how many times they have characters referencing it as more than just a building, the forced nature of trying to create an inanimate character never comes off, and you don’t ever invest in that idea, unlike the ships in Star Trek, Alien, Sunshine, or Event Horizon (I’m showing my sci-fi roots there), there is never any unease with the High Rise.
Performance wise, the cast are all strong. Hiddleston is impressively distant and off-kilter with the other residents and Irons plays the architect beautifully, revelling in his social experiment with an intense interest that permeates his time on screen. Luke Evans plays Richard Wilder excellently as the documentary filmmaker that leads the chaos from the lower levels, and Elisabeth Moss is a real standout as his downtrodden earth-mother wife, bringing a small amount of sanity to the maelstrom of strange that flies around the rest of the film. Sienna Miller as Charlotte Melville does what she can with a fairly thin part as Laing’s love sort of love interest, and single mother with a secret.
Stylistically it does feel out of time, with a strong sense of seventies social drama about it. As I mentioned before, the sets give a very thematically strong sensation of the times, even if they lack the intended menace, and the direction is crisp and sharp, with a sense of dark humour running throughout.
I found that the problem with this film was it feels dated. Add to that the feeling that for about half the movie it feels like genuine social commentary with the rich getting the cream of the crop even though they have contributed nothing extra to the society created in the piece. However, after this promising start it then just descends into chaos, and random acts of weirdness for the sake of it. I’ve no doubt that this will be lifted from the novel, and I’m sure that Amy Jump’s screenplay is loyal to its source material, but it does add to the feeling that it’s a period piece for a period that most people just want to forget. No one is likeable, the place feels ugly, and the randomness of the situations and actions throughout feel dated, and out of place in modern filmmaking. It gives me no pleasure in saying that, as I am a huge fan of randomness, especially when it’s done artfully, but you can’t help but feel that this has missed its place in time. If this was filmed by the BBC in the late seventies or early eighties, it would rightly be held up as a classic, but now it feels like a film pining for a bygone era of serious and abstract social commentary.
Am I glad I went to see this? Probably, but I’m not sure I could recommend it for anyone else I know. It’s not a serious enough analysis or parody of society to feel worthy for those that like some biting drama in their lives, and it’s certainly not light-hearted or fun enough to be considered a great night out at the cinema for the casual movie-goer. I’m sure it will have an audience somewhere, and I’m sure they will go nuts for this, I’m just not sure where to find them.
- some excellent performances
- 70’s nostalgia as well as an awesomely creepy cover of ABBA’s S.O.S..
- random for randoms sake
- the missed opportunity for a menacing inanimate character
- wanting to be Zardoz, and missing the Red Nappy