Director: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans
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Read our interview with director Ben Wheatley.
“Sometimes, he found it difficult not to believe they were living in a future that had not already taken place.” That’s Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston) in High-Rise, based on a novel written in 1975, filmed in 2015 and stuffed with things to say about Britain’s future.
It might sound odd to praise a film for its architecture, but Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s book is a movie that really gets the significance of bricks and mortar. Homes tell us a lot about how we define and shape our lives. In Buenos Aires, the slums that accommodate the poor have become known as the Ciudad Oculta, the “hidden city”. In London, vacant mansions have become a sign of wealthy foreign investors. In New York, skyscrapers are on the rise, as the population booms and people who can’t afford a home squeeze into shoebox apartments.
And so it is that Laing is drawn to life in a new development of high-rise buildings. Designed by Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), it’s a luxury block that not only anticipates the tall building boom of today, but also captures the structure of people within it. The tower gleams with futuristic touches, from the mirror-filled lifts to the pristine, glossy supermarket, but there’s no escaping its brutalist history; aiming to forge something new in post-War Britain, they only craft a gaping window onto society. It almost goes without saying that the rich people live on the upper floors and the working class families struggle to get by on the lower. Each level boasts balconies that jut out confidently into the sky, allowing everyone to see across the land like princes – and look down on the people below them.
That’s how Laing meets his colourful assortment of neighbours, including Elizabeth Moss’ sad housewife, Helen, her husband, Wilder (Luke Evans), a filmmaker shooting a documentary about the project, and Charlotte (Sienna Miller), a single mum to a boy whose father’s identity is kept secret.
Royal conceives of his building as a “crucible for change”, but the shift he creates is one from order into chaos, as things slowly descend into anarchy – literally, in the case of one body’s jaw-dropping tumble off the building and into the car park. It’s a transformation that Ben Wheatley presents with vivid violence and an arch sense of humour, his eye for horror only amplifying the shock of something that’s so absurd it feels all too real.
On the top tiers, James Purefoy delivers a remarkable performance as Pangbourne, a vile, loathsome city worker, who swans about with his suit and briefcase, lording over everyone he meets. He’s perfectly contrasted by Evans, giving a career-best turn, whose gruff, angry sincerity (and all-seeing camera) distils the class war that’s taking place, but also pushes it further over the edge of civilisation. And in the middle sits Hiddleston’s Laing, who witnesses everything happening with a calm, composed exterior, still going to work as normal. At one point, he makes a student faint by showing him the gory skin being removed from a skull.
That idea of the surface being peeled away to show the bare skeleton lingers throughout, the eerie vibe echoed by Client Mansell’s creepy score, which slides from lounge music to synth hell with a momentum as gradual as it is relentless. One montage is accompanied by a skin-crawling cover of Abba’s SOS by Portishead, a sequence that makes the familiar feel completely alien – it’s one of the best things you’ll see on a screen this year.
Screenwriter Amy Jump keeps that wit and repulsion present at all times, immersing us in the mundanity of the crumbling hierarchy, so we can only marvel at the bizarre sight of a French fancy-dress party (complete with horse), and laugh at Pangbourne and chums’ determination to win the class war – by throwing a better party than them. “We must commandeer all necessary resources,” he declares, his bow tie undone, his face sweating. “Booze, canapes, cocktail onions.” He orders Royal to lead a delegation. “To where? The United Nations?” “The supermarket,” comes the reply.
Underneath it all comes the recognisable stench of something gone rotten. Keeley Hawes is witheringly selfish as Royal’s wife, Ann, who spends her time lounging about in a penthouse that becomes less glamorous by the minute. “The cleaner refuses to clean unless I pay what I apparently owe her,” she sighs. “Like all poor people, she’s obsessed with money.”
Laurie Rose’s camera captures the set with a Kubrickian, Gilliamesque blend of precise weirdness and dark poetry; we repeatedly return to Laing’s apartment, where Hiddleston’s face is beautifully splattered with paint, as he decorates his living room the right shade of grey. (If Dulux did “dystopian malaise”, this would be the advert.) That claustrophobic, compartmentalised way of life is rendered with immediate, depressing accuracy by production designer Mark Tildesley, the group’s rapid disintegration contained within a fiery, unyielding prison.
With the snazzy sideburns and cool drugs covering up the surface cracks, the period setting only emphasises High-Rise’s timeless relevance – one that’s rooted in its understanding of the architecture of society. Those angled blocks of potential dreams now look like concrete lumps of failed regeneration, the building blocks of humanity perpetually primed to be driven apart by neglect and hate. As hidden wealth, lies and unshared resources pile up to the sky, the progressive designer who promised a brighter future hides in his room, embarrassed by the impending failure. “The building’s still settling,” he says over and over, rather than outline any plan to solve the situation. The rich people aim to take control and put an end to the uprising, only stoking the resentment of the people at the bottom. The ones in the middle, meanwhile, browse for interior decorations and tell themselves everything is normal. The only way for them to retain normality in this new world? Start BBQ-ing dogs and hope for the best. “What can you see through that thing?” Laing asks Charlotte’s child, as he looks into his kaleidoscope. “The future.”
The result is a blistering, dazzling masterpiece of British cinema. Beneath the style and sheen lies an ugly, nasty truth, a stunning state of the disunion address that only seems to get more relevant the more time passes. “You look much prettier without your clothes on,” Charlotte tells Laing. “You’re lucky. Not many people do.”
High-Rise is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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