Generally speaking, it’s safe to say the words ‘unfilmable novel’ should not be taken as a challenge. But who better to take it up, than one of the most compelling and interesting filmmakers to emerge in recent years, Ben Wheatley. Wheatley’s debut, the gritty crime drama Down Terrace, put him on the map. He duly followed it up with a stunning tale of occult horror in Kill List – arguably the greatest horror movie of the last ten years. Sightseers combined the darkest of black comedy with English eccentricities, and for his fourth movie he gave us the divisive and surreal A Field in England. With High-Rise, Wheatley gets his teeth stuck in to J.G. Ballard’s classic dystopian novel. Grindhouse Ben Wheatley has morphed into Arthouse Ben Wheatley.
Set in the UK in the 1970s, High-Rise introduces Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) as he moves into a new tower block apartment. Hitting it off with his neighbour Charlotte (Sienna Miller), and integrating into the new building community, he also forges an uneasy friendship with the architect, Royal (Jeremy Irons). The building comprises the height of 70s mod cons and Laing even does his shopping in the 15th floor supermarket. The complex is so self-sufficient that he only needs to leave in order to go to work.
Not long after Laing moves in, the tower block starts experiencing some teething problems. At first it is chalked up to the building needing to ‘settle’, but it soon becomes clear that this vertical utopia is perhaps not quite as wonderful as it first appeared. When power cuts, water shortages and bin strikes hit the lower levels, tensions rise as the penthouse levels – the literal upper class – attempt to preserve their way of life at the expense of the rest.
The film looks fantastic. The eponymous High-Rise is a monolith of brutalist architecture, towering into the dull, slate grey sky. Slabs of concrete intrude everywhere in the set design. The building imposes itself on every second of film. For comparison’s sake, the design is not a million miles away from Mega City One’s Peach Tree complex in Dredd – yet another dystopian nightmare. The rest of the movie looks authentically 70s and as if some of the characters have stepped straight out of a British Public Information film from the era.
Hiddleston cuts a confident figure as Laing. Immaculately dressed, and decidedly gym toned. In the early sequences he gives off a bit of a Patrick Bateman vibe. But while Hiddleston brings his usual dignity to the table, and is quite excellent in the role, the character of Laing retains somewhat of a dual position throughout – cutting himself off from the building at times, and getting heavily involved at others.
Jeremy Irons is reliably good value as Royal, architect of the High-Rise. He displays all the blissful unawareness of a ruling elite. He throws a powdered wig party while the lower levels struggle without water, and you realise it’s all gone a bit meta when the aristocrats are pretending to be aristocrats.
The superb Elisabeth Moss has a smaller role, playing Helen, Laing’s friend and wife of lower level agitator Wilder (Luke Evans). She personifies middle-class aspiration, at one point stating, “things would be better if we could only move to a higher floor,” not registering the whole building (see: system) is beyond repair.
The first half of the movie is particularly good. Although surreal at times, with some stilted dialogue, it all gels nicely, resulting in an unsettling yet interesting experience. The second half is where High-Rise does falter somewhat. As the infrastructure crumbles, the residents embrace the decadence of the top level. It all becomes a little bit too obtuse at this point and eventually the movie disappears up its own bottom.
Ultimately, despite being a bit of a head-scratcher, there is still enough here to make High-Rise worthy of your attention. The strangely off-kilter style is arresting, and Clint Mansell’s soundtrack creates an atmosphere of unease. It’s British class war from the 1970s, and while the flares and sideburns might have gone out of style, the grim reality of the politics have not. High-Rise might well be more relevant than ever in a post-Brexit Britain, and although its approach is arty, its message is cudgel blunt.