D: Ben Wheatley / 119m
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Peter Ferdinando, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith, Louis Suc, Enzo Cilenti, Augustus Prew, Dan Renton Skinner, Stacy Martin, Bill Paterson
First published in 1975, J.G. Ballard’s novel, High-Rise, was originally meant to be made in the late Seventies by director Nicolas Roeg from a script by Paul Mayersberg. That particular project fell through, and for a while afterwards Vincenzo Natali was attached along with Richard Stanley as screenwriter, but that fell through as well. Fast forward to 2014 and writer/director Ben Wheatley – along with his wife, screenwriter Amy Jump – develops the movie along with long-term attached producer Jeremy Thomas, and the result is an edgy, claustrophobic thriller that never quite achieves the goals it sets for itself.
We meet the movie’s central protagonist, Dr Robert Laing (Hiddleston), at a time when anarchy and violence have overtaken the residents of the tower block in which he lives. Holed up in the apartment he bought several months before, Laing is surviving against the odds, surrounded by the debris of his previously ordered and carefully maintained lifestyle. Pragmatic and sanguine about his future, the first thing to understand about Laing is that he’s showing no sign of leaving the tower block he lives in. The question that follows is a simple one: what could possibly have happened to bring Laing to this point?
The movie takes us back three months and Laing’s arrival at the tower block designed by architect Anthony Royal (Irons), an experiment in social living that houses the lower classes on the lower floors, and the upper classes on the upper floors (and Royal and his wife in the penthouse suite). Laing’s apartment is somewhere in the middle, an unwelcoming collection of drably painted rooms that he makes no attempt to improve upon or make his own. He’s an aloof man, a little socially awkward, but he does attract the attention of his upstairs neighbour, Charlotte (Miller), and her son, Toby (Suc). She invites him to a party where Laing is introduced to some of the other residents, including documentary movie maker Richard Wilder (Evans) and his heavily pregnant wife, Helen (Moss).
Laing also attracts the attention of Royal, and the two meet privately, though Laing’s aloof nature keeps him at a distance from the disappointments voiced by Royal in relation to the social engineering that isn’t going as well as he’d hoped. There’s also the problem of his wife, Ann (Hawes), and her unhappiness at being cooped up in the penthouse suite, while her husband tries to perfect his plans for the tower block and the others being built nearby. With the power to the building frequently out for long periods, and the divisions between the affluent and the less well off growing wider and wider with each passing day, Laing finds himself caught between both camps in his efforts to blend in anonymously.
Wilder, and his distrust and disapproval for those more privileged than himself, proves to be the catalyst for the kind of hostile rule breaking that makes the more well off residents angry and afraid that their ordered existence is in jeopardy. A party gets out of hand, and sees the beginning of the end of order within the tower block, as residents band together in various groups to impose their own versions of order on each other, but with the upper classes holding the upper hand – and crowing about it. But even their confidence proves short-lived, and Royal’s attempts to calm things aside, no one knows how to restore order to everyone’s satisfaction. It’s not long before mutual hatred leads to violence and murder, and the breakdown of civilised behaviour amongst the tower block’s denizens.
In adapting J.G. Ballard’s highly regarded novel, Wheatley has retained the Seventies period setting – all browns and oranges in the colour scheme, many of the male characters sporting excessive facial hair – and has created an isolated (and isolating) sense of space in the tower block designed by the well-meaning yet naïve Royal. With the building’s harsh lines and overwhelming size offering a sense of foreboding that’s hard to ignore, the movie’s visual design is at once disconcerting and strangely inviting, an uneasy mix of large, empty spaces and claustrophobic interiors that draws in the viewer and keeps them as unsettled as the residents of the lower floors. It’s an impressive achievement, the tower block’s dark shadows and labyrinthine feel a potent mix that is hard to shake off.
Class divisions are at the core of the movie though, as Ballard’s clinical dissection of suburban mores and failings is given a thorough, if overbearing, once-over by Jump’s screenplay. Prejudice and bias, arrogance and denial, contempt and xenophobia, malice and psychosis – the script piles it all on with darkly comic attention to detail, and yet in such a fashion that none of it is as effective as the script, and Wheatley’s often fevered direction, would like. All these elements are combined in such a way that each of the characters experiences them to some degree or other, but not in a way that enhances the descent into self-induced madness and chaos they endure, or even the emotional fallout that results. The residents all behave appallingly, but in the same way that they find themselves trapped within the building, so too does the script trap them in a web of limited motivation, unexplained choices, and hasty reversals. The result is a movie where everyone behaves as if they’ve lost control of their ability to reason, while at the same time, behaving with a single-minded purpose: to destroy their lives and the lives of those around them.
If the bulk of the cast and characters are all required to behave in a fashion that suggests mass-induced paranoia, then it could be said that Jump and Wheatley are creating a world where this is inevitable when such class divisions are thrown together into a huge melting pot. Animosity will prevail, both seem to be saying, and it doesn’t matter how cultured or couth you may be, you’ll lower yourself accordingly in order to survive. Which leaves us with Laing, a character who starts off as being intriguing but soon becomes a cypher, a man it’s hard to identify with or even root for. As the tower block begins to disintegrate around him, he retreats from the carnage going on outside the door to his apartment, and gives in to emotional and physical lethargy, avoiding the world he’s now a part of, and retreating into himself. The movie loses its protagonist, and descends into an extended series of scenes where the focus becomes muddled due to the decision to explore various forms of maladroit behaviour in a mannered, and compromising way. The narrative, ostensibly about Laing and his reaction to the events going on around him, loses steam and becomes weighed down by stylistic excess and a repetitive disregard for its own narrative.
At least the performances, though mannered and harking back to the period in which the movie is set, are uniformly enjoyable, even if they’re often required to spout clichés and banal justifications in support of their actions. Hiddleston does extremely well as the odd man out, the outsider blessed with the ability to see beyond the tower block and the state of disillusion everyone is feeling, but who nevertheless finds himself embroiled in the angry wishes of the mob. Irons is astute and nowhere near all-seeing as Royal thinks he is, which adds to the character’s tragedy. Miller is fine as the object of several men’s lust, while Evans adds another powerful role to his career CV as the man whose anger makes him more dangerous than anyone else.
Rating: 6/10 – a movie that lacks recognisable depths in its characters, and avoids giving them appreciable feelings in the process, High-Rise takes its setting’s microcosm-in-sharp-relief and expands on it without fully exploring the consequences of anyone’s actions (even Charlotte’s); maddening for how good it could have been with a sharper attention to relevant emotional details, it’s still a thought-provoking movie, albeit one that loses its audience by letting its characters flail about unnecessarily and to little benefit.