“That’s right. You sit there and think about what you did.”
Honestly, I had no idea what to expect when I sat down for High-Rise. The trailers and marketing purposefully tell us nothing useful about the film or its story. Outside of “stars Tom Hiddleston and directed by Ben Wheatley”, I wasn’t entirely sure this would be something worth seeing. But, you know, sometimes playing a hunch pays off.
In mid-70’s London, Tom Hiddleston is Robert Laing, a doctor at a teaching hospital who has just moved into his new place in a luxury tower block. One of a handful of high-rise buildings developed by renowned architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), Laing has found what should be the perfect home on the 25th floor of this new community. Designed with isolation in mind, the high rise is a self-contained society with its own social hierarchy where those with the most money live at the top and the closer you get to the ground floor, the closer you get to the lower classes.
No sooner has Laing moved his stuff in than he finds himself in the middle of a very literal class war. Those on the top floors behaving like the aristocracy and ensuring that their fair share is much more than those below them. On the lower floors, documentary maker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans); a man intent of documenting the injustice of living literally at the bottom of the food chain and his pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) turn out to be the kind of people that Robert gravitates to more than those above him. At the same time, with his place cemented with the middle class, he strikes up a friendship with this upstairs neighbour Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and as the building’s occupants slowly lose their minds and the isolated society descends into anarchy, Laing must decide who his loyalties lie with and how to survive as his new found home has its very own little apocalypse.
I know what you’re thinking. At least, I hope I do, because I thought the same thing. “This sounds like Snowpiercer in a block of flats”. You’re right, it does; and that feeling doesn’t leave you once you’re done watching High-Rise. Kill List and Sightseers helmer Ben Wheatley has been handed a large budget and a big star or two and given free reign to create his own little world for us, and boy does he surpass all expectations. I’ve said in the past that Wheatley has shown flashes of Kubrick-esque brilliance in his films, and this is his A Clockwork Orange in so many ways. Most obviously is in the aesthetic the man has created inside the Tower Block. The 1970’s setting is full on Kubrick: when you see that the tower has been built around the 70’s idea of what the future will look like, with residents “living in a future that is already here”, we are told.
I admit that I wasn’t entirely convinced when I saw the cast list. I wasn’t Luke Evans’ biggest fan after that dumb Dracula film he did, and Sienna Miller has never really hit my radar as someone worth watching. But both are amazing in their roles as the filmmaker trying to climb the ladder a little and the wannabe socialite with her ear to every wall. Most surprising to me though was Elisabeth Moss. I loved her all those years ago in The West Wing but I’ve not really enjoyed anything I’ve seen her in since. She does manage to change my mind here though, in a dramatic way. She is easily one of my favourite characters in this film and she does such a great job as the wife just trying to scrape by in the lower levels. Adding those to the always stellar Hiddleston and the unable-to-disappoint Irons, we’ve a stew pot filled with talent and amazing performances.
Based on J. G. Ballard’s novel of the same name, slightly-unhinged director Ben Wheatley has brought us yet another darkly funny, twisted and completely surreal way to spend a couple of hours. As Hiddleston’s quiet doctor falls for the madness of the block’s twisted self delusions, his struggle to keep sane and keep the right people on his side is one that keeps us all on the edge of our seats. The creeping sense of horror that comes from the tension between the guys at the top and the wasters at the bottom has with it this tremendous sense of foreboding from the second the violence is hinted at. We all know the direction this is going, the opening minutes showed us; but to watch the anarchy play out over such a short space of time as the high rise’s residents go from perfectly fine to near feral is pretty terrifying.
High-Rise, like almost all of Wheatley’s films, is likely to divide audiences straight down the middle. But one thing is for sure, his little slice of dystopia, love it or hate it – and believe me, I loved it – will be talked about and analysed for years to come.