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Film Review: High-Rise (2015)

Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise

Director Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel, High-Rise, stars Tom Hiddleston as Dr. Robert Laing, a physiologist and a new resident of a sleek, luxury high-rise building designed by Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), an eccentric, elderly architect who lives in the penthouse. Although tenants are free to come and go as they please, the building operates as a closed system—having its own swimming pool, supermarket, and school—and is divided by socio-economic class lines—with the elite on the upper floors and working-class families on the bottom. Placed in the middle, Laing interacts with hard-partying, single-mother Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) in the floor above him and with odd couple Richard (Luke Evans), a brutish documentary-maker, and Helen Wilder (Elisabeth Moss), an oblivious and pregnant stay-at-home mother, below. Almost as soon as he moves in, however, Laing and the rest of the insular building’s occupants descend into chaos, madness, and violence as resources become unexpectedly scarce.

There is a clear, dystopian, social-experiment element to the film’s set-up. Royal is the detached, all-knowing experimenter/observer/mad scientist who has created the building, selected its inhabitants, and watches the unfolding events interestedly while safely ensconced in his pristine penthouse. He sends out men to do his bidding, drawing in Laing as a squash partner while also placing the younger man under his insidious influence. (A very different relationship to the one that Hiddleston and Irons have previously had on-screen in The Hollow Crown.) Perhaps, he finds a kindred spirit in the cool-headed doctor, who, in one gruesome scene, impassively splits open a skull to show to young medical students in an operating room. By contrast, the roguish Wilder acts as foil to Laing. While Laing is slim, clean-cut, inscrutable, impeccably dressed, and living alone, Wilder is stocky, hairy, brash, difficult, and has a wife and many children. Wilder is also a filmmaker who wants to document the injustices within the high-rise and instigates conflicts that even Royal cannot control. Interestingly, Laing describes Wilder as the “sanest man in the building.”

Among other dichotomies, there are many lines drawn and crossed between the classes, between the sexes, and between civility and savagery in the high-rise. The most obvious class distinctions are between the upper floors and lower floors. At one point, a Versailles-style costume party, complete with powdered wigs and champagne, is held in the penthouse while power outages occur on the lower floors. When they make their complaints, the lower classes are given unfair treatment and soon forced to walk down hallways full of garbage because the chutes are blocked. In regards to men and women, the men are often shown going out for work while lower-class women like Helen remain at home cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the children or otherwise living hedonistically but imprisoned, like upper-class Charlotte and the not-yet mentioned Ann (Keeley Hawes), Royal’s tempestuous wife. Lastly, there is a juxtaposition of civility and savagery throughout the film. Some residents maintain a veneer of sanity and respectability even when madness has completely surrounded them. Helen makes polite conversation with Laing at a party while nearby her husband drinks and rolls around on the carpet, aggressively making advances towards Charlotte. When the filth of the lower floors has finally penetrated the penthouse, Royal and his advisors talk in a business-like manner about how they should operate, barely reacting to news of the disappearance and possible murder of one of their own members. These clashes of opposites create a sustained tension in High-Rise.

The film is utterly stylish, gloriously flaunting its source material’s 1970s aesthetic via bell-bottom pants, brutalist architecture, glossy interiors, orange design elements, mutton-chop facial hair, and so much cigarette smoking. Leaning into its visual strengths, High-Rise takes on the qualities of a fever dream, cutting together images and character storylines in a disruptive, difficult-to-comprehend way. The plot and dialogue is muddled and illusive, leaving behind a violent, creepy, off-kilter tension that is occasionally punctuated by dark humour and moments of genuine emotion from the female characters. High-Rise is a chaotic story told in a chaotic way in order to highlight its themes of paranoia, madness, hedonism, decay, violence, and savagery and make a social commentary on the economic and political climate of England in the 1970s.

Ratings (out of 5):

Directing: 4

Story: 2

Acting: 4

Dialogue: 2.5

Editing: 4

Visuals: 5

Music/Score: 3.5

Overall Average: 3.6

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