Directed by Ben Wheatley
Starring Tom Hiddlestone, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss Film review by Colin Lomas
Arguably JG Ballard’s most prophetic and politically acerbic critique on society, High Rise has been passed around studio after studio as a movie option for almost twenty years. Written in the early seventies in the initial throes of Thatcherism, the story describes the lives of the residents of a new totally self-contained residential block in east London. Amazingly pre-dating uber-luxurious glass monolith Pan Peninsula in Canary Wharf by nearly forty years, it portrays a building with everything an occupant could ever need; a school, a swimming pool and gym, a supermarket. As friction starts to build between the different floors (each advanced level analogous to the increasingly affluent steps on the social middle class ladder) and the building starts to have technical teething problems, humanity soon dissolves into mayhem and murder as the inhabitants quickly devolve to their pure animal instincts.
The narrative follows new resident Robert Laing (Hiddlestone) as he attempts to integrate himself into the building’s frivolous party scene, quickly discovering the underlying condescension of the upper floors toward their lower floored incumbents. He soon meets pregnant outcast Helen Wilder (Moss) whose violent husband Richard (Evans) has taken it upon himself to lead the lower floor revolt for his own selfish ends. Laing’s regular squash matches with building architect and penthouse owner Anthony Royal (Irons) are soon cancelled as the division between the various floors turns violent. Laing then finds himself on a voyage of self-discovery as he attempts to find his rightful place among the warring factions.
Amy Jump has done a masterful job at converting a novel which many have said was impossible to transcribe into a full length movie. However, her commitment to the original book is actually one of the movie’s main pitfalls. As with the original novel, the violence and floor snobbery quickly becomes extremely repetitive. Only so much time can be spent observing fights between various floors of an apartment block without becoming a little desensitised, the latter parts of the film suffer somewhat from this evident monotony.
The other issue with converting the novel is that although Laing is the main character for the first third of the novel, Wilder takes over those duties for the majority of the rest of the narrative, a precarious coup to attempt in a film which generally requires a consistent protagonist throughout. It therefore starts to feel that Wilder and Laing’s characters are awkwardly battling for screen time and neither really win out.
The film’s visuals glow absolute beauty and must have been an assignment sent from heaven for the set designers who have lovingly painted it with the extravagant yet tacky plastic curves and floral friezes of the era. Costume designers have also had a field day; the cast’s post-revolt visual appearances are ludicrously brilliant. Reece Shearsmith’s post-apocalyptic gaffer tape outfit as Nathan Steele makes him look like Immotan Joe from Mad Max: Fury Road should he have kitted himself out at Wilkos.
It’s a shame but it’s difficult to truly love or hate the characters because, even though Hiddlestone, Irons, Evans and Miller all put in solid performances, it always feels like they are circling the event horizon of the true main protagonist, the building itself, which again, works brilliantly in the novel but not so well on screen.
High Rise is a fabulous film to examine, a slightly trickier one to truly enjoy and an almost impossible one to genuinely love. Whether it is relished or not will come down purely to how it is approached; If it’s taken as a mad-cap two-hour excursion of fun, death and orgies then it could be cherished, but if you expect it to be as thought-provoking and politically cutting as the novel then you may be a little disappointed.