It’s an interesting sensation walking out of a film – which has such a display of vitriol – in a smiling stupor over what you’ve just seen. The long awaited film adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s quasi-dystopian 70s novel set in a luxury skyscraper has been extremely divisive ever since its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and it will continue to be for years to come. For this reviewer however, the film, directed by Ben Wheatley, triumphs in its depiction of class-war decadence.
Tom Hiddleston’s Dr Robert Laing moves into a luxury skyscraper with everything that you could possibly need – a supermarket, gym, swimming pool, squash and tennis courts, all designed by The Architect (Jeremy Irons), who lives in a penthouse garden atop the tower. But within this towering palace, divisions of social class are marked clearly – the working class families reside on the lower floors, the middle class residents in the centre, and the upper class elitists living right up at the top. In the first few weeks of Laing’s arrival, the tension and class divisions in such an enclosed space begin to reach their breaking point, and eventually the entire block dissolves into all-out violent tribal warfare.
The book has been trying to find development for decades, though many deemed the nature of its setting as ‘unfilmable’. After viewing the film, it becomes clear that no other director could have captured J. G. Ballard’s novel in such a rich way than Ben Wheatley – known for his disturbingly interesting films such as Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England. High-Rise is an explosion in a delirium factory, deftly handling its class-war politics while being mindful of the nature of humans living in enclosed spaces.
The direction by Wheatley starts off calm, giving wide scope for all of the high-rise’s inhabitants to be explored and examined, gradually becoming more and more unstable as events progress. As social chaos descends within the tower, the camera work becomes more frenetic, shaking around the carnage, gathering a more urgent feel to the situations.
Tom Hiddleston feels like the ideal candidate for Robert Laing. Hiddleston’s roles have been consistently sophisticated – he is a very elegant, imposing and attractive man, and he relies on keeping his dark side hidden, meaning you can never quite tell everything that’s going on. Hiddleston keeps his posture, and that makes the character all the more mysterious. There are also two great supporting performances from Sienna Miller and Luke Evans – Evans is the father of a working class family who becomes obsessed with the inequalities and differences of the tower’s social structure, and is one of the more aggressive characters we see. His spiral down into insanity is not only believable, but it has a lasting impression. Sienna Miller, playing Charlotte, who appears to have everything and everyone in the tower sussed out, is a strong character who remains one of the more sane – if any character in this film can be labelled that. Previously in films like American Sniper and Foxcatcher, she displayed good form when she was on screen, but she’s felt underused for a time, and thankfully this is not the case here. In part, she’s a guide for Laing as he grows into the tower’s mould, on the other hand, she’s a bystander to the violence and aggression, seeing it through a knowing eye and keeping a distance.
High-Rise will be analysed from many angles for decades, as the book has, but if you embrace the fundamental idea of what enclosed environments do to the class system, the film is – for want of a better word – bat-shit crazy. But it’s how this craziness is handled and displayed that makes for such a thrill ride. People here eat dogs, beat each other up for looking wrong, fight over a space in the rubbish shoot, ride horses through corridors, and lead charges to drive an upper class banquet out of a swimming pool. Within this, Wheatley finds ways to bring out the comedy of the situation – there are genuine moments of delicious black comedy that hit the right notes. But there’s nothing repulsive in it, nothing to upset the squeamish, and nothing to really offend anyone. Wheatley has such elegance when directing a world that is falling into disarray with interesting visual ideas and a hand that seems to be in full control of filming a scenario that certainly isn’t.
It offers no edge-of-your-seat tension, or conventions of a dark thriller, but there are thrills to be had. High-Rise brings professional, clean, enthralling and whole-heartedly divisive social-surrealist drama that can be seen as an extreme political examination or a toy box full of dark cinematic treats. The choice will be yours, but there will be many differing selections across the audience.