Several film-makers have tried (and failed) to bring J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise to the big screen. Most notably, Nicolas Roeg. During a recent interview with film critic Mark Kermode, Wheatley said he “had no idea about that, which was a good thing.”
Of course it’s a good thing. Can you imagine trying to make a film that the great Nic Roeg couldn’t? No, neither can Wheatley, but somehow, he has managed it.
It’s the 1970s. Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is young, handsome and successful. He lives in a luxurious apartment on the twenty-fifth floor of a high-rise tower block. Being a middle-class, fairly rich single man, Laing takes one of the top floors, whereas the poorer residents inhabit the lower floors. Service charges are the same for everyone with the lower placed tenants feeling particularly hard done by, especially with the garbage chutes filling up with an ever-increasing supply of rubbish, not to mention the electricity cuts.
These problems, of course, along with many others we soon learn about, are dismissed as mere teething troubles by the architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons).
Among the plebeians is Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a documentary film-maker who constantly causes trouble and flirts with Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), while living with his wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss). The upper echelons of the tower include Pangbourne (James Purefoy) and Cosgrove (Peter Ferdinando), a newsreader. These detestable creatures are part of group of privileged individuals who live a life of excess and wallow in an endless pool of self-indulgence when Wilder and the less fortunate inhabitants struggle to make ends meet.
High-Rise is most obviously a metaphor for the class divide. It’s a study of a society which although written forty-years ago, is still relevant today. Without getting on my political soapbox, those that insist we live in a classless society are displaying levels of ignorance I do not have time to, nor wish to, address.
The influences, although not deliberate, are hard to ignore. Yet the film still feels very much Wheatley’s own. The production, sumptuous set design and rich colours are very Kubrickian. Camera shots are controlled and long and cuts are sparse. The dystopian aspect smacks of Gilliam’s work, most obviously Brazil (1985) and to a lesser extent the recent flop The Zero Theorem (2013). I myself found the 1997 science fiction horror film Event Horizon a much more apt reference of study in terms of now the building itself seems to have power over the residents. Though not as terrifying, the feelings and themes of lack of control and helplessness are certainly there. Like the tower itself, it’s a pretty picture with an underlying darker interior.
Despite all its positives, the real winner here is composer Clint Mansell. His score captures the decadence of the pretentious top floor tribes, the struggle and warfare that ensues between the floors and the melancholy at the situation we find ourselves. It is ever-changing, much like Laing’s outlook during his time in the high-rise.
“For all its inconveniences, Laing was satisfied with life in the high-rise”, and I as a film fan was more than satisfied with a project like this. A cult classic for the next digital generation to discover and enjoy.