It’s difficult to describe what I have seen after my viewing of ‘High-Rise’, the latest outing by acclaimed UK low-budget indie director Ben Wheatley (Sightseers, A Field in England, Kill List). His adaptation of JG Ballards 1975 dystopian book of the same name, strangely prophetic in its ability to scope out and analyse society years ahead of its time, will surely serve as a cult classic for many years to come.
The story takes place in a tower-block, in which resident’s social class and associated wealth are illustrated by where they live in the building. The poorer residents; typically larger families or the working class were confined to the lower tiers while the flamboyant rich flaunted their preposterous lifestyles through multiple parties on the upper levels. Tom Hiddleston takes the lead as Robert Laing, a young, accomplished doctor who moves into one of the middle floors. Straight faced, methodical and leans towards no particular side, leaving him with the ability to manoeuvre between the social classes.
The rich and the poor each receive different levels of hospitality in the building while sharing other areas, however aside from the obvious elements such as the parties for the rich or lack of electricity for the poor; very few other elements are explored. There is an obvious distaste for the rival levels and those on it, snobbery rules the upper levels and a natural hatred for them from the lower levels creates a bitter feeling at work. You can see the clear motivation for wanting to move up the ladder, but for the most part it is left entirely up to interpretation – something I am confident the book would have delved into in more detail. While the ambiguity did leave me a little confused at first, the end result was something entirely compelling.
The conflict between the classes culminates into an unexplained anarchy, where the rich struggle to look after themselves, clinging onto what little they have left, and the poorer decide to commandeer the lower levels of the high-rise in an attempt to protect themselves from the madness surrounding them. It seems at this stage that perhaps High-Rise is no longer a film about class, although stemmed from a societal divide, but is more around human interaction within society as a whole. Behaviourally, how do people react when put under intense pressure, and how can this be magnified when they are unexplainably tied down to the confines of a refined space. As Hiddlestone said in the Q&A afterwards, Laing went into the High-Rise to escape society, but found it in a more concentrated form.
The supporting cast provide excellent performances, and it is in their convincing nature that the gaps in the story, no matter how absurd, can be patched up so easily. The buildings creator, the architect known as Anthony Royal is played by Jeremy Irons with an impressive level of conviction, far removed from the lower levels in his penthouse apartment and rooftop garden. Sienna Miller works her magic as Charlotte; a sultry, licentious neighbour to Dr. Laing, who also manages to navigate the many floors switching between the divides easily. Elizabeth Moss stars as a pregnant wife, in quite an underused and directionless role, while her husband Robert Bonds (Luke Evans) puts in one of the best performances of the film, as the psychopathic working class man who has finally snapped.
With the success that Wheatley has had to date, naturally the budget and names associated to the work has increased in value. Clint Mansell steps in providing an eerie soundtrack, only bettered by the strangely unnerving Portishead cover of Abba’s S.O.S. The larger budget, although small by Hollywood comparisons, is evidenced further within the on-point production design by Mark Tildesley, and is showcased expertly by cinematographer Laurie Rose.
Visually it is impeccably stylish, set in a type of futuristic 1970s as if you’d been thrust into a life-size version of a Joe 90 set. The transformation of an old sports hall in Bangor has been used to represent the future of accommodation, creating a minimalist and imposing vibe throughout the buildings hallways juxtaposed against the bright retro 70s stylings throughout the flats of those on the lower floors. While the upper floors were decked out in fur, bright and airy, with expensive paintings that should have been in museums.
It is not without its faults. There are a lot of unanswered questions, and for the most part this descent into disorder and the actual catalyst behind it is largely ambiguous reduced to a 5 minute montage. However, rather than a type of dystopian thriller instead it is a playful, supremely dark comedy somewhat evading any real attempt to make a comment on present day society. It is not the mirror against society we probably came to expect, for Wheatley’s interpretation is far too ludicrous and vaguely insane for it to be reflective of present-day. Any kind of profound message seemed lost in the madness; either that or I couldn’t see what was right in front of me the whole time.
Maybe that was the point though. Nevertheless, Wheatley’s working of JG Ballards vision is great entertainment, creating a chaotic sense of revolution that will quite possibly take multiple viewings to fully comprehend and appreciate. Although it seems far-fetched now, maybe it is a sign of things to come. As Hiddleston read from ‘Extreme Metaphors’ (A collection of JG Ballard interviews) after the screening, Ballard has been scarily accurate about other predictions with respect to the future generations love of technology. Only a matter of time before we’re all eating dogs then.