It’s always a challenge to adapt a novel that is so of its own time. JG Ballard’s High-Rise is a ‘70s story to its very core, from the particular class-based fears that permeated the blacked-out, waiting-for-Thatcher Britain, to the idea that the rich and powerful would want to live in a brutalist concrete monolith. It’s also a story, one of increasingly violent isolation in the heart of London, that would be over in a second if modern technologies like mobile phones were prevalent. About halfway through Ben Wheatley’s shallow and muddled take on Ballard’s vision, you wish that someone would pull out the latest iPhone model, call the police and grab an Uber to the nearest B+B. In a Q+A after the film, Elisabeth Moss (playing depressed housewife Helen Wilder) said that if she moved into the eponymous High-Rise, she’d have moved out one day later and stayed in a hotel. It would probably have been a lot more fun if all the characters had followed suit, letting this talented cast pal about in a foyer rather than engage in exhausting and motivationless ultra-violence.
Tom Hiddleston takes the lead role of Dr. Robert Laing, a neuroscientist who moves into the 25th floor of the forty-storey building. He’s a later arrival than all of the other characters, leaving the possibility that he may be the catalyst for the hermetically-sealed society’s descent into utter mayhem. The lower floors are occupied by the middle-class residents, such as the aforementioned Helen and her documentarian husband Richard (Luke Evans). Laing’s middle floors are made up of upper-middle class professionals, whilst the upper storeys are reserved for Old Money and the building’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). This separation of the classes, with higher-up residents enjoying vastly superior living conditions to those at the bottom, combined with a lack of outside contact, leads to seething resentments which explode into a self-contained class war.
Hiddleston’s typical cold detachment works well for Laing, someone who can carve up a decapitated human head without flinching, and the rest of the cast, including Siennas Miller and Guillory, Keeley Hawes, and Reeves and Mortimer alum Dan Skinner, do fine jobs too. It’s just a shame that none of them have any real characters to work with. No one here appears to have any real motivation for any of their actions, and the frequent sex parties and slow-mo dancing are not enough of a distraction from that, especially when it gets violent. A lot of really nasty stuff happens in High-Rise, from casual murders, to brutal rapes, to drowning dogs (one of the book’s favourite things was to constantly offend the British sensibility of sentimentality toward our pets). Without a proper context, these acts become monotonous, and the shock factor appears to be attempting to hide the lack of any believable story beats.
There are effective moments – Laing realising he can’t let himself just leave the building really creates the sense of the high-rise has its own weird gravitational pull, and a bloody brawl over a tin of paint is wonderfully executed. It’s also, at many points, a visual treat. The building itself looks like very few other movie settings, both inside and out, and the often dizzying camerawork does capture much of the claustrophobia of apartment-building life. There’s also some great make-up work, with Hiddleston’s paint-clad face in the film’s latter stages making him look like a sort of Halfords Braveheart. Abba’s ‘SOS’ gets some inspired usage on the soundtrack, from a violin version at a Hanoverian Era-themed party to a Portishead cover that plays over a pivotal sequence. In some films, these elements would be enough to make it recommendable, but High-Rise lacks the wit or depth to make sticking with its unpleasant and expendable characters worthwhile.
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Written by Amy Jump
Starring; Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller
Runtime: 112 mins
High-Rise does not yet have a UK release date