Despite some great performances and an interesting visual style, a muddied narrative prevents High-Rise from reaching its full potential.
The latest film from director Ben Wheatley, High- Rise is a long awaited adaptation of JG Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name, the story of a luxury apartment building and a violent descent into depravity. As the tower and its occupants become increasingly isolated from the outside world and their resources run low, the neighbours quickly turn upon each other for control of the building. For the inhabitants of the high-rise, the construction gradually takes over their existence, swallowing up their lives and their jobs in the outside world as they indulge in debauchery and horror within their own microcosm. Despite its dark tone, the plot has a whimsical, allegorical quality to it, musing upon the fragility of modern civilisation and the nature of human barbarity. It’s a premise that requires a measure of disbelief, but nevertheless provides an intriguing examination on the human condition.
Wheatley has made the interesting decision to set the film very specifically within mid-1970s Britain, appropriating the release period of the original novel. It provides for a stylish and somewhat nostalgic aesthetic; trousers are flared, wallpaper is garishly printed, and shades of brown are rampant. Indeed, the whole film is visually excellent, as the set design juxtaposes brutalist architecture against the disorder wrought by the tenants.
The frame is also filled with some exceptional central performances. Tom Hiddleston stars as Dr Robert Laing, a stylish neurosurgeon and the latest arrival to the tower. Laing is an almost impenetrable character; his past is left purposely shrouded in mystery, whilst his motivations remain unclear as he adapts to the degrading world around him. Hiddleston commands this ambiguity well, providing a charismatic yet unsettling presence throughout. Opposite him is Jeremy Irons as the antagonistic Anthony Royal, the original architect of the building, who evinces similarly ambivalent intentions. He claims to have constructed his own self-contained civilisation as an “instrument of change”, but doesn’t seem clear as to what change he seeks.
Deserving of particular praise, however, is Luke Evans as Richard Wilder, a menacing figure who leads a campaign against the wealthy residents of the tower’s upper floors. Wilder is an evidently despicable character from his first entrance, becoming more so as the madness intensifies, but Evans’ passionate performance is captivating. Ironically, his uncontrolled anger feels like the sanest response of all within an insane world. The female roles are broadly given less to do, but Sienna Miller rounds off the lead performers as Charlotte Melville, a carefree party-goer with little caution for social norms or even the safety of her young son.
Where the film fails, then, is in its storytelling. Both the opening and concluding chapters of the narrative are well executed, providing an immersive picture of the film’s peculiar world. It is in bridging these two sequences that Wheatley loses his way. For much of the second act, the film appears so keen to show you what is happening, but never does much to explain why. We are presented, in vivid and unflinching terms, with the collapse of the building into a hysterical and nightmarish state, but the underlying causes and social divisions beneath this turmoil are never really explored. The result is a narrative that feels muddled and without proper premeditation, which left my eyes wandering towards my watch rather than glued to the screen. A series of shocking events take place, but it’s difficult to be invested when so little attention has been given to the set-up.
With the central characters of the film being so well drawn, it feels odd that the world around them is little more than a sketch. The high-rise itself is a visually stunning backdrop, but the script could certainly have done more to define its own conflicts and give more focus to the narrative. A last minute reference to Margaret Thatcher reveals some of the original story’s satirical edge, but it’s too little, too late. Wheatley’s penchant for visual symbolism and montage undeniably bogs the film down, and a shorter runtime would have resulted in a more coherent final product.
Nevertheless, High-Rise is an interesting experience, particularly if you allow yourself to be immersed in its unique world. Perhaps lacking in focus, its performances and use of imagery will leave a lasting impression, giving you much to think about long after the film has ended; as is often the case with Wheatley, the film is multi-layered and repeat viewings will likely reveal further intricacies. On first impressions, however, High-Rise fails to entertain as much as it really should, and there’s a feeling that Ballard’s satire deserves a more thorough excavation. The opening narration of the film states that “for all its inconveniences, Laing was satisfied with life in the high-rise” – I felt inclined to agree.
This review was also published in Exeposé, the independent student newspaper for Exeter University. It can be found here, along with my other work for the publication.