[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.