dapted by screenwriter Amy Jump from the prophetic 1975 novel by J. G. Ballard, Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise confronts us with a gross caricature of 1970s' Britain. Set in a state-of-the-art London tower block where inhabitants are cut off from the rest of society, we follow the young doctor Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) as he moves into the twenty-fifth floor. The isolated community encompasses its own cross section of the social hierarchy, which soon descends into all-out class warfare that sees the high-rise fragment into violent tribes.
While the film is in some ways a progression from Wheatley’s previous works, his fanciful, comically grotesque imprint remains prominent. With a tone almost dark enough to rival Wheatley’s uncompromisingly anarchic Kill List (2011), this film is packed with all manners of depravity. However, we are offered an even more conspicuous sense of playfulness – a black humour that gives the film more substance than the director’s previous films. As we are sucked into an unrelentingly bizarre, hyperbolized 1970s nightmare, most pretences of standard narrative form are soon dispensed with, in favour of crafting an unsettling collage of viscerally felt debauchery. We watch on helplessly as we are presented with a showcase of decadence. The film underlines the anxieties of an era in which brutalist monoliths began to dominate the skyline. We experience an anti-nostalgia for a boozed-soaked period of garish décor and inescapable cigarette-stink, with Portishead’s haunting cover of ABBA’s ‘SOS’ filling us with unease.
Certainly, the film is a triumph in a visual sense. Laurie Rose’s cinematography is superb, the screen is often populated with arresting imagery of the highest order, akin to a Stanley Kubrick text. The frame is filled with evocative shots – Huddleston’s paint splattered face, amber-tinged scenes straight out of a period drama, and ominous images of the monolithic buildings, which somehow themselves become the antagonist of the film.
The performances are also striking in their sheer ostentation. Hiddleston has a chilling presence as the shady Robert Laing, playing the role with an unsettling detachment. Luke Evans’ portrayal of the psychotic Richard Wilder keeps us on edge throughout, and Jeremy Irons returns to his Shakespearian roots in depicting the building’s flamboyant architect with a disturbing mischievousness. But underneath all this impressive form, High-Rise is to some extent a victim of its own ambition.
Perhaps at odds with its source material, we should probably not read this as a piece of speculative science fiction – it is more of a reflective exercise. The film is set in an alternate 1975, and presents us with a form of retro-futurism that is supposed to be all the more biting given the benefit of hindsight. A rather too overt Margaret Thatcher reference is even included, as if the film’s implications weren’t plain enough. This political retrospection may prove hard to navigate for some. The film is often drolly weird in it’s over the top cynicism, presenting us with a warped retro-reality evocative of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). High-Rise is a surreal excursion to the bleakest depths of social injustice. It attempts to be a statement not only on 1970s' Britain, but on capitalism and social inequality in general. However, somewhere along the way this barrage of overt social commentary verges on pomposity. While the perspective offered by the film is thought-provoking, it quickly becomes insubstantial, causing us to wonder, is this is all there is? Perhaps in adapting Ballard’s novel something was lost in translation, or maybe this story was just more suited to the prose of a page. That said, this film is still a powerful dystopian vision, just one without much depth beneath its undeniably resplendent surface.