Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenplay: Amy Jump
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss
Runtime: 119 Minutes
While staring into the prismatic eye of a kaleidoscope, a young boy is asked by Dr Robert Laing (Hiddleston) what he sees. He see’s “The Future”, or at least as understandable a vision one could see through its psychedelic eyeful. Ben Wheatley’s High Rise, adapted from the incredibly loaded 1975 novel by J.G. Ballard, takes this insight to heart as he carries the audience on a kaleidoscopic journey through the past – with all the broken optimism and tentative beauty that it entails.
Much of Ballard’s literary work tackles the relationship between human beings and technology, taking apart the growing disconnect that it provides in a civilised society. From Crash to Concrete Island, the same patterns occur whereby civilised advances only serve to drive us further apart as a collective, and into a more primordial state of existence that we can never truly avoid.
The high-rise of the architect's (Irons) design is a hub of modernist decadence and form – complete with a school, shopping mall, swimming pool and gym - a towering hand that reaches from the ground to the heavens in an effort to elevate us to a higher platform of living - luxury by title and arrangement, anything but in execution. A hierarchy is immediately formed in the building even in the presence of its flat charges and living standards, as an air of exclusivity sets in while the buildings lights and elevators shudder under the slowly brewing tensions that have always been present, but never really felt before being thrown into such convenience.
A sort of agoraphobia takes hold of the tenants as the outside world feels like a suffocating dream compared to the safe ‘reality’ of the microcosm, a place where Laing finds the fulfilling anonymity that he never knew he wanted. Its citizens vary from bakers and physicians to hostesses and filmmakers, their status represented by their altitude as the “real families” reside on the ground while the cool parties rage above them.
The supposed class struggle that is being imposed upon the tenants by the building's structure is actually the lesser focus of the problems that unfold. It’s displayed as more of a symptom of the collapsing experiment that is Royal’s utopia, as well as an emblematic representation of how the barriers of societal etiquette, moral fortitude and civilised mores crumble when placed within a state of close quarters and enforced scrutiny. The entire film drapes itself within the garments of the decade in which it is set, but never underestimates the futility of its window dressed culture. If the 60s was the defining era of insurgency and change within the western world then the 70s was the non-stop party thrown in celebration of their own progression – and to an extent, the film knows this. One of the first instincts of revolt by those on the upper floors in reaction to the free-for-all chaos below is to simply throw an even bigger party as an act of reactive mutiny.
It’s not long before the building crumbles into primal savagery, in which tribes are formed and lives bartered for in frank and unquestionable manners. The film dazzles in this regard as Wheatley’s aggressively intimate editing and filmmaking dexterity take control, and High Rise descends into a level of visceral pleasure unparalleled in his past filmography by the virtue of its staggering budget and scope. Without the comfort of a conventional narrative structure, it becomes more of an experience as you watch the disintegration of society head-on in a barrage of violence and black comedy to an extent that pushes the boundaries of his previous work. The building and its levels become a living stage in which it performers run amok and play with its many tantalising delights and details.
The problem that comes with this focus on instinctive thrills and sights is that, even when the backdrop of its setting and thematic strengths fall into the subtext, it feels as though Wheatley has somehow lost sight of the message that Ballard’s text has been trying to hammer home. It’s as realised a vision as the book could possibly offer up in a visual field, but much of its resonance feels rather muddied when you’re seeing a vision of the present reinterpreted through the past. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how or why this effect occurs in an otherwise faultlessly reproduced onscreen world, but for some, it may feel as though the experiment at hand is a spell that only operates as well as it does while it is being witnessed.
Ballard’s text operates through internal observation with a limited reliance on verbal communication between its isolated characters, so it’s commendable that Amy Jump’s screenplay is able to work around much of this through invention and elaboration – even in the third act where you can practically feel the plot straining to converge its multiple threads into a single climax.
The assembled cast of mingling faces from across British cinema is devoted, to say the least. Heavy hitter Hiddleston delivers a fantastically subtle performance as Laing, but it’s a shared segment of the bigger picture that is the entire building. Irons, Purefoy, Hawes and Miller are great in their respected positions, while Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men fame quietly pilfers attention whenever she’s around as the concerned mother dwelling in the pits below. Luke Evans has drifted in and out of the spotlight for years now and it’s just astonishing to see him let rip in a brutal, boisterous performance as Richard Wilder; a documentarian both filming and indulging in the bedlam unfolding, brandishing his camera like an ancestral crest as he leads the masses into battle.
Clint Mansell’s score is a gorgeously melancholy achievement, and that paired with a haunting cover of ABBA’s ‘S.O.S’ by Portishead grants the film an extraordinary soundscape that lampoons the films retro styling’s.
High Rise works more than it has any right to considering its opaque source material, if only down to the work of its performers, its capable screenplay efforts and the passion of its director at the helm of this lurching ship. It’s damn good, possibly even great, and even though it might not be the most successful work of its director it’s an admirable effort that once again tackles the paradigm of ‘unfilmable’ literature.