Director: Ben Wheatley
15 | 1h 59min | Action, Drama, Sci-Fi | 18 March 2016 (UK)
Director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Sightseers) has been joking on the press circuit for his new film High-Rise, his adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s dystopian novel about society disintegrating within a giant new tower block, that this is the first film where he has had the budget to actually design and build sets. Eyebrows certainly were raised at the prospect of a director, who has so far stayed rooted in the low-budget cult zone, being given the kind of money that allows for the visualisation of an epic Ballardian world, one populated by big-name cast members like Tom Hiddleston, Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss. It certainly looks like Wheatley knew how to spend every penny of that new money well so his film would look great: visually High-Rise is a stylistic triumph, sporting fiendishly elaborate baroque/brutalist sets aided by sparse CGI, which create a striking, demented architecture that looks like London’s Barbican Centre on crack. It’s just a shame the rest of the film feels a bit messy.
The slight plot, which takes place in a soulless, alternate-universe London, sees Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), an affluent and good looking doctor of psychology, move into the titular high-rise to begin a new life of luxury. The high-rise is a huge structure built in an epically brutalist style, and is actually one of five blocks designed, as its architect Anthony Royal (who actually lives on the penthouse floor and is played by Jeremy Irons) puts it, to form the shape of an open palm. The lofty goal of the design was luxury and harmony. Of course, this is a Ballardian world, so things are not going to quite go so smoothly. But before things go to hell, Wheatley delights in showing us the rhythms and colours of the tower knowingly styled here so as to evoke the 1970s-80s British period. There are some eye-catching visuals, whether it be the vast car park under the high-rise’s shadow packed with rows of slightly-tweaked period cars, overdecorated kitsch lobbies, and “hall of mirrors” lift interiors. The supermarkets with their colour codes aisles look like a Gursky photograph.There is something suitably ‘off’ about the design of the place, it all feels wrong somehow, just like it feels wrong for a horse to be wandering about on the top floor in the garden space, as Laing witnesses.
Tensions build in the tower however due to power fluctuations, with the community’s resident ladies’ man and brusque social climber Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) eventually kicking off a violent revolt against the upper echelon residents, who enjoy more access to facilities. Actually, it’s not so much a revolution against elitism as it is a general descent into chaos, with the police and authorities seemingly uninterested in what happens to the tower, even when bodies start sailing out of windows to splat onto the tarmac below. Wheatley has some fun setting up the fall and then tearing the place apart: a party for the upper crust residents with a renaissance costume theme feels like a nod towards Eyes Wide Shut, whilst at one point someone gets clobbered with a BAFTA in a melee. Laing sort of stays above all the noise, content to drift between having hot sex with both Wilder’s pregnant wife (Moss) and sexy neighbour Charlotte Melville( Sienna Miller), when he isn’t otherwise wandering the halls and pumping iron at the gym.
But the film stumbles when it tries to fit this vision of societal meltdown into some polemic against Thatcherism, with the film also making some none-too subtle nods towards the housing bubble of the last decade. Ballard’s original concept just doesn’t lend itself to this kind of moulding so obviously, or at least not in the way the film is approaching it. The class divide in the tower isn’t so obvious and the trigger for the collapse doesn’t really have anything to do with mortgages or finance: everyone here seems quite well off, and Wilson’s rant seems more elemental than anything specific to do with feeling oppressed. Ballard actually was not opposed to Thatcher, at least not initially, his concerns to this writer have always seemed more focused on how easily the middle class might start eating each other, in some kind of wave of mass psychosis. But on the other hand, it is easy to see why the filmmakers might want to use Ballard’s work in this fashion, it just isn’t subtly, shockingly or amusingly done.
Crucially, Wheatley and his writing partner Amy Jump also don’t bring the same kind of ability to veer from shock to comedy that they did to their earlier collaborations. Thus the film keeps feeling like it is missing the knockout blow. Luckily, even when the film is drifting, the cool centre of all this madness remains Tom Hiddleston, well-suited to the role of Laing as aloof observer and effortless adaptor, which, as one character points out, might make him the most dangerous figure of all in this cruel new world.