Tag Archives: Elisabeth Moss

High-Rise is a deliciously cynical elevator ride through hell

[This review was originally posted at Nerdly as part of my London Film Festival coverage.]

First we’re given a glimpse of the end: Tom Hiddleston’s neurosurgeon Robert Laing calmly sifting through the filth-strewn hallways of his tower block, encountering a dead man with a TV smashed over his head…and cooking a dog’s leg. This is director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump’s subtle way of telling us that this isn’t where we’re going as a society, despite High-Rise ostensibly being a period piece; it’s where we are right now, and we better get comfortable.

Discomfort is the main order of the day, though, as Wheatley’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s dystopian novel about climbing the social ladder is given to mayhem from pretty early on without order. Upon moving into the titular tower block, the reserved but disciplined Dr. Laing is quickly introduced to the hierarchy of the building by Sienna Miller’s neighbour Charlotte: the obscenely wealthy live at the top, throwing decadent parties, riding horses and maintaining gardens; the middle classes are in the centre, their sizable apartments half-filled and hallways becoming venues for petty squabbles about rubbish disposal; and the poorer residents occupy the bottom, trying to scrape a living to support their children and afford service charges for power that is often switched off at a whim.

Initially wanting only to keep himself to himself, Laing quickly becomes entangled in the politics of his building. The two main ideologies at war are represented by Luke Evans’ philandering filmmaker, perpetually drunk and rowdy, and Jeremy Irons’ architect Royal, who built the blocks that now pepper the skyline and hopes they will act as a catalyst for change. The only problem is that, living on the roof of the building as he and his nostalgia-obsessed wife (Keeley Hawes as both peacock and caged bird) are, he’s oblivious as to what kind of change will actually happen.

After a number of ugly incidents mar the uneasy peace between the different levels, a full-on gang war breaks out between rich and poor (and eventually, when food grows scarce, between everyone), though Laing attempts to stay apart from the madness. Hiddleston plays him with a masterful restraint that steadily cracks to reveal both his distaste for the hedonistic upper classes and undeniable desire to be on top. Most other characters don’t try so hard to mask their feelings: Charlotte casually ends a sexual encounter with Hiddleston after he tells her he “thought we were doing this” by saying, “we’ve already done it”; Ann Royal calls Laing a dilettante to his face after he arrives at her powdered-wigs costume party in black tie. Though High-Rise offers obvious villains, its archetypes are completely intentional, the escalating debauchery (and, more shocking, acceptance) of everyone’s actions all serves to illustrate a black-tongued, comical critique of society and is all the more intoxicating for its directness.

All of this is filmed in claustrophobic close-ups by Wheatley & co., especially in the corridors where most of the anarchy takes place. Flats are havens for the characters like the elite, who relax in orgiastic ignorance while the distant angles and classical versions of pop songs (shout out to Abba’s SOS, which receives two hilariously subversive covers) serve to separate them from the reality beneath their feet.

But Laing’s home, too, is his sanctum santorum, one which he devotes a disturbing amount of time and energy to decorating. He’s trying to achieve material perfection, right down to the clothes he wears (and insists he must keep on, even after having sex with Elisabeth Moss’s heavily pregnant Helen), and by the end it could be argued that he’s achieved just that. One great success of Wheatley’s direction is to make Laing a compelling lead without becoming hero or villain – in a film where almost everyone commits ugly acts, the man who stands and waits for the dust to settle is both the smartest, coldest and dangerous person you could hope to meet.

High-Rise is out in UK cinemas today.

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Face Down In The Sand

I know there all these cool Scandinavian shows around and detective serials are the lifeblood of television, but this epidemic of having the murder victim be a 15-25 year-old girl has really got to stop, if for no other reason than that it’s gotten fucking boring.

While surfing the AV Club I came across a teaser for The Bridge, a new show with a fairly interesting conceit about solving crimes committed on or around the US/Mexican border (well, that’s what I think it’s about. I only watched it once, but potential plot accuracy isn’t really the point here. I stopped being interested as soon as I saw the still image that served as the banner for the ad: a young woman’s topless body, face down in the ground. Words cannot properly do justice to the body-quaking yawn that emanated from my entire being, and I decided that the show probably wasn’t for me.

Which is a shame, because it might well be a fine piece of television, but if you’ve seen Twin Peaks (and I’d hope that was most of us by now, but I’ll not judge if that ain’t the case) you’ll have witnessed a pretty thorough examination of how far a story about dead girls can be pushed. The last word, if you will, the exception that proves the rule and probably the reason that there’s no faster way to turn me off a new series (or movie, or novel, or comic, ad nauseum) than by showing painted nails covered in seaweed and long hair face down on a beach. I just don’t believe that I’m going to see anything new.

I’m not saying revolutionise the whole format. Every show can’t have Lynchian non-sequiturs (frankly, if every one did television would be interminable), but mixing up the formula even a little can be incredibly potent. Just look at Awake – Jason Isaacs solves crimes in two alternate realities; one where his wife survived a car accident and his son died and another where the reverse is true – or Jane Campion’s recent astounding mini-series Top of the Lake, which utilises detective show tropes but uses them to focus on character relationships and a plot more about making sure people don’t die than finding out who killed them.

[Seriously, even if you don’t like crime fiction, watch Top of the Lake. It’s got pathos, sex, disturbing revelations and killer performances from Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss and the ever-compelling Peter Mullan.]

One of the things that connected with me about that last show was its feminist agenda, but I’m not even asking for something as ideological as that. Solving someone’s murder in a story means reliving their life and discovering who they were, and I want to see stories about everyone, not just university-age white girls. Middle-aged men, elderly women, little children, even teenage boys would brings something new to the plate. This isn’t a conversation about women dying in art. That’s been going on a long time, and I’ve nothing to add to it just now. Over-egging even the most important topics can make them marginal given the apathy of most people, so I’ve no eggs today. This is about surprising people.

There’s something really quite morbid about the fact that police procedurals and casually amusing murder serials (Midsomer MurdersMurder She Wrote) are so popular, I find. But if people insist on telling those stories, why not tell them about someone else for a change?

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