It is 1975, and the young Doctor Laing (Hiddleston) relocates to a newly constructed tower block, complete with its own shops and amusements. But as the structure becomes more and more isolated from the outside world, tension spikes amongst its many residents.
Director: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss.
From the first few minutes, it’s clear that High-Rise is not a film which will appeal to everyone; beginning with one of its main characters barbecuing a dog, it is not for the faint-hearted or for those expecting a brutal and adrenaline-fuelled thriller. Deliberate but not dull, it finds its own visual and narrative niche and dreamily, yet doggedly (pun unintended) clings to it.
Much has already been said about JG Ballard’s deeply pensive and startlingly prophetic novel, which ruminates on 1970’s Britain amongst various other subjects. It is safe to say that the film definitely immerses itself in these same discussions. From the higher floors which house the richer inhabitants, to the lower floors where those less fortunate get financially shafted, some of the discourse, to borrow a scenario from the film itself, is about as subtle as a paint tin to the head.
However, beyond these stark messages there is a lot more that is left unsaid, and the movie is all the more potent for this mix of the obvious and the implied; the age old rule of horror being generated by what is not revealed comes in to play in full force. The descent of order and civility in the block is shown in fits and starts, holding at certain points more than others, and we can only guess at what terrors are occurring out of sight. It’s a testament to the craft of the movie that an uncomfortably graphic dissection sequence is less unsettling than the later comments of one character, which implies just how far their morality and decency has degraded.
Indeed, it is this inversion and juxtaposition that ensures that the film work as well as it does. Ben Wheatley fascinates, with the parallels and contrasts between the inhabitants, from the harsh concrete of Laing’s apartment to the soft interior of Anthony Royal’s (Irons) penthouse suite, and how each one changes as time passes. There is also a pervading dreamlike quality to the proceedings, generated by the soft lighting and the prominent use of beiges and pastel tones in the movies’ ready embrace of 1970’s fashion and design.
Dialogue carries from scene to scene, obscure images and sequences intrude, and characters disappear for long periods to reappear later, yet it never feels disjointed or unnatural. Laurie Rose’s meticulous and stylised cinematography is exemplary and adds to this surrealist nature, which as stated above, is undercut by a dark, socially-conscious undertone.
For all that roots it in past, including Portishead’s haunting rendition of ABBA’s SOS, the film could very well have been set in the late 2000‘s. There is immediacy to its investigation of a pre-Thatcher Britain, as we and its divisions that lends itself to a postmodern interpretation and uncomfortably links it to our current, austerity-ridden society.
Psychology, masculinity, history, consumerism, capitalism and politics… hours could be spent investigating the many meanings and interpretations of this movie. It works fittingly (to those who have seen the film) as a kaleidoscope; ideals, ideas, structures, characters and relationships are constantly moving, distorting and breaking naturally, only to reform into new colourful shapes so that we can re-examine them.
The talented cast and their characters form part of this cycle, but they are never lost in the ideological melee; Hiddleston is the unassuming everyman, in a calculatedly restrained and increasingly intense performance.
Caught between the conflict of the upper and lower floors, his Laing is our view into the society of the tower, around which the decadence and savagery unfolds. Others such as Charlotte Melville (Miller) flit around him, ethereal, despondent and, in the case of Richard Wilder (Evans) occasionally violent. But even so, they offer occasional outbursts of dark and absurd humour as their allegiances and attitudes contort.
Satirical, surreal and strikingly shot, High-Rise is vivid, challenging and certainly not for everyone, and may run a little bit out of steam towards its conclusion, but its macabre and mesmeric interrogation of deep socio-political and psychological themes makes its relevance hard to discount. Indeed, these ensure that its persuasive power lingers long afterwards, and offers a lot for its audience to mull over.