The most suitable comparison for High-Rise is A Clockwork Orange. Some similarities are superficial; both are based on cult novels long presumed unfilmable, both display a keen eye for brutalist architecture, and both are unafraid of a bit of the old ultraviolence. And while it is unlikely to match Kubrick’s opus in controversy or cultural impact, Ben Wheatley’s J.G. Ballard adaptation is similarly wildly uneven, completely bonkers and, clearly, a work of demented genius.
Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) has just moved into a brand new tower block, inhabited by rich and poor alike. He struggles to fit in; too fancy for the lower orders and too gauche for the higher-ups. Designed by a reclusive architect (Jeremy Irons) as a utopian crucible for change, the building’s inhabitants soon descend into primal madness as a brutal class war erupts. With the toffs at the top against the plebs at the bottom, Laing must find his place in all the chaos…
Like A Field In England and the aforementioned adventures of Alex DeLarge, High-Rise is a film crying out for a second viewing, one to unravel its mysteries, synch to its idiosyncrasies and make sense of its craziness. The story’s slow build is masterfully paced, setting the scene for the inevitable anarchy. When it arrives, however, jarringly via montage, viewers are left perplexed. Is it flashback, premonition, fantasy or reality? It takes a while to restore an even keel, and the tone is similarly unbalanced. The satire is often simultaneously too subtle yet too pointed, the debauchery too restrained yet too excessive. But by the end, as for the characters, everything becomes clearer. Like the high-rise itself, maybe you just have to get used to the place.
As Laing, Hiddleston excels as the introverted everyman and the swivel-eyed lunatic lurking beneath the surface. He gamely throws himself into proceedings, deploying his magnetic charisma and honeyed tones to turn in a sterling performance. Luke Evans continues to impress as macho documentarian/psychopath Wilder, while Sienna Miller’s growing career resurgence (Renai-Sienna-saince?) is further assured as the enigmatic Charlotte, even if the role, like Elisabeth Moss’ Helen, seems a touch undercooked. Irons brings all his gravelly imperiousness as the misguided Royal, and James Purefoy nails the posh snob caricature.
But this is truly Wheatley’s film. It is heartening to see that despite an increased budget and larger canvas, he has lost none of his depraved wit and visceral style. Here he trumps even Kill List for insane imagery; the premature demise of a beloved pooch and a highly symbolic autopsy, where a man’s face is peeled from his skull to reveal only the meat beneath, will likely provoke guffaws and gasps in equal measure. His visual sense is stronger than ever, thanks to long term DoP Laurie Rose, with slow motion dance manoeuvres, frenetically filmed fight scenes and literally kaleidoscopic violence collided riotously together. Mark Tildesley’s superb production design gives life to Ballard’s block, while Clint Mansell’s soundtrack earns plus points for epically reorchestrating ABBA staples, forever reclaiming them from the tone deaf warblings of Mamma Mia!
With its sense of Kubrickian ker-azy, social commentary and eye popping aesthetic, High-Rise is well worth the ascent. Though far from perfect, like the very best films, some of it is genius, a lot of it is bats, but all of it is essential.
High Rise received its European Premiere at the BFI London Film Festival 2015 and will be released in UK cinemas on 18th March 2016.