Words by Katie Dancey
Acknowledged as an ‘un-makeable film,’ High-Rise has been set aside by countless film-makers. When Ballard played with form and structure in his 1975 novel, he wasn’t creating an easy job for future screen adaptations, the passive protagonist Robert Laing posing a real problem. So how did director Ben Wheatley fair? In short, brilliantly.
Reminiscent of classic dystopian films like A Clockwork Orange and Brazil, High Rise places us in the near future of 1975, which we somehow see through a 2016 lense. We’re thrown into the deep end when the film begins with a nightmarish scene; Tom Hiddleston (former Night Manager and now Robert Laing) barbequing a dog on his balcony. We’re then thrown back three months to when Laing first moved in to the high-rise apartment block: a self-contained world with gym facilities, swimming pool and super-market.
As Laing meets his new neighbours, the film’s premise begins to unfold; we discover that the higher up the residents live, the higher up they sit in the social pecking order. On the very bottom sit the ‘real families,’ – poor, starving and packed in to cluttered spaces. Right at the top is the building’s architect Anthony Royal and his wife Ann, who spends much of her time riding around their giant rooftop garden on a horse (don’t get too attached to said horse) and hosting eighteenth century costume parties, to which the lower floors are most certainly not invited. Somewhere in the middle of the high-rise, we find Robert Laing.
For the first portion of the film, we meet and observe the residents through Laing’s eyes. He isn’t a complete bystander to the plot, but he certainly isn’t active. He waits until things happen to him, rather than moving the story along. Royal soon summons Laing to his penthouse apartment, giving Laing (and us) a glimpse into the high-life. What isn’t clear, is why Royal wants to connect with Laing in the first place.
Once the hierarchical structure of the high-rise has been established and we’ve joined Laing on his journey to meet the prominent characters in the building, everything descends into chaos when the building experiences a few teething problems. The various factions of the building become almost tribal, resulting in violent supermarket sweeps, kidnappings and orgies, all in a drunken haze with a hallucinogenic feel. As the building descends into a mad-man’s playground, the characters become more desperate, terrified and deranged, but somehow seem to enjoy the vulgarity. The decent into chaos is just that – chaotic. What feels like something that could be more of a slow-burn escalates very quickly, but takes up a good portion of the film.
What isn’t clear is why the residents don’t just leave the high-rise for greener grass. In Ballard’s novel, they become obsessed with what is happening inside the high-rise, and abandon the world outside to become consumed by the chaos. This isn’t particularly clear in Wheatley’s imagining of the story, but the surrealism of the film (and book) gives a ready made excuse for anything that doesn’t quite make sense.
Tom Hiddleston is perfectly cast as Richard Laing, and when matched with his The Night Manager performance, he’s got a ready made audition tape for Bond. Laing is an observer for much of the film, and only an actor as captivating as Hiddleston could make the film work. If Laing had been miscast, the film would have flopped. The rest of the star-studded cast is equally as superb, with Jeremy Irons as the antagonist Royal and Luke Evans playing Wilder, a documentary filmmaker becoming more detached with reality as the film goes on. Keeley Hawes makes a detestable Ann Royal, and Sienna Miller hooks us from the beginning as the fascinating and complex Charlotte.
High-Rise is not a film for the faint-hearted. In an audience of not much more than thirty, five walked out of the showing at particularly offensive moments, or when the nudity tipped from Tom Hiddleston covering his dignity with a tiny towel to more violent sexual scenes. High Rise is a political film that doesn’t lecture and if it doesn’t become a classic, will at the very least be a delicious secret for lovers of the dystopian film. The terror of the film comes from its familiarity; if the story was set in our own imagining of the future, the only thing missing would be the cameras and selfies as the apocalyptic mayhem goes up on YouTube.