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Non-Review Review: High-Rise

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016.

Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise is a beautiful ugly film.

An adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s surrealist novel, High-Rise fits rather comfortably within Wheatley’s aesthetic. There is an apocalyptic paranoia running through the film, which charts the social decay of the eponymous building over a three-week period. Class warfare is rendered literal in multiple senses, as the lower classes visit violence upon the wealthier inhabitants of the tower block. Even during the most peaceful and serene sequences of the movie’s first half, there is an underlying anxiety and dread bubbling just beneath the surface.

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High-Rise is disjointed and uneven, but that would seem to be something of the point. Amy Jump’s screenplay and Ben Wheatley’s direction eschew conventional pacing, with the world collapsing more in fits and starts than in a steady decline. Wheatley and Jump also edit the film, emphasising the chaotic nature of this collapse through jumps and montages that document the erosion of social order in a manner that ebbs and flows. It is disorientating and occasionally even frustrating, but one senses that this is meant to be the point.

High-Rise is a messy piece of work. But then, as the movie seems to suggest, things get messy when life is forced into a neatly delineated box.

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High-Rise is firmly rooted in the tradition of socially-conscious British speculative fiction. Indeed, it is telling that both director Ben Wheatley and his source material have strong ties to the British science-fiction institution that is Doctor Who. Wheatley directed Deep Breath and Into the Dalek, the first two stories to feature Peter Capaldi in the title role. J.G. Ballard’s novel served as a major influence on the underrated Sylvester McCoy story Paradise Towers, from producer Andrew Cartmel’s “bringing down the government” phase of the show’s history.

Wheatley and Jump’s adaptation retains most of the pointed political commentary. Indeed, the film even closes with an excerpt from Margaret Thatcher’s economic philosophy, taken from a parliamentary debate that took place a year after the publication of Ballard’s novel. However, as with so many allegories of the class system (and capitalism’s role therein), time has done little to temper its biting social commentary. High-Rise might unfold in a retro-futuristic version of the mid-seventies, but it is truly unstuck in time.

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Wheatley is drawing from a rich tradition of classic science-fiction. Not only are American sci-fi like Logan’s Run and Star Trek obvious in the design and aesthetic of the film, but Wheatley also nods towards classic seventies directors who worked in the genre. There is more than a dash of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange to be found, and Wheatley also zeroes in on David Cronenberg’s Shivers as something of a contemporary companion piece to his source material.

The production design in High-Rise is fantastic, at once visually striking and utterly distinctive, firmly rooted in a British cultural nostalgia. The shopping centre in the heart of the building, for example, is designed so as to evoke the set from the classic British game show Supermarket Sweep. The use of black and white in the Royals’ penthouse recalls both the mods of sixties London and the black-and-white footage of the BBC archives. The movie captures the spirit of sixties and seventies science-fiction, lovingly recreating it.

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High-Rise looks absolutely fantastic, with recognition due to production designer Mark Tildesley, art directors Nigel Pollock and Frank Walsh, set decorator Paki Smith and costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux. The colours pop out of the frame, and Wheatley manages to make all these elements look at once beautiful and horrifying. Although set against the backdrop of the mid-seventies, High-Rise is very much set against the fading optimism of the sixties – with bright blues and oranges giving way to cold greys and harsh concrete.

To be fair, Jump and Wheatley have shifted some of Ballard’s emphasis so as to better play to Wheatley’s particular strengths and interests. While High-Rise is very much an apocalyptic satire on the British (or broader capitalist) class system, the film is saturated with occult imagery and invocation. Wheatley’s work has been deeply fascinated with the occult and the unseen, and High-Rise emphasises its eponymous setting as something approaching a magical ritual summoning urban collapse into existence.

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Indeed, the film’s protagonist acknowledges this in an early conversation with the project’s architect. Throughout the film, Laing speaks of “the building” as if it is a living entity. He refers to himself as a cell moving through a larger body; towards the end of the film, he admits speaking to it. While this certainly fits with Ballard’s original text, the emphasis placed on it renders the movie more ethereal and uncanny. (This is to say nothing of the eye imagery that recurs throughout the film, whether as graffiti or in Laing’s later appearances.)

Wheatley has drawn together a fantastic ensemble to bring Ballard’s book to life. Tom Hiddleston anchors the movie in the role of Doctor Robert Laing. Both the central human character and largely a passive observer for most of the film, Laing’s restraint amid the chaos around him is decidedly unsettling. As much as his neighbours might tear each other to ribbons as the social order collapses around them, Laing is somehow more uncanny for his willingness to stand by and watch the world fall apart.

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In many respects, Laing is a quintessentially British protagonist for a quintessentially British science-fiction apocalypse. Laing keeps calm and carries on as the world goes to hell around him, maintaining the veneer of civility as society falls to pieces. Laing is an island fortress, a literalisation of one of the defining British archetypes. However, High-Rise renders his stoic detachment as horrifying rather than heroic, another delightfully cynical piece of satire in a movie of simmering class resentment.

Appropriately enough, given the resonance that Ballard’s High-Rise had with Diamond Dogs and the movie’s mid-seventies stylistic sensibilities, Tom Hiddelston’s Robert Laing cannot help but evoke David Bowie. There is something of the Thin White Duke in how Laing is presented, Bowie’s early seventies apocalyptism worn down into late seventies nihilism. Hiddleston’s blonde hair and tall frame invite comparisons to Bowie, but the similarities are only played up through the costuming and performance choices.

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Hiddleston does great work in the role, playing Laing as an outwardly agreeable sort nursing his own wounds and his own anger. Hiddleston remains quite apart from the madness around him, retaining a sense of poise and grace even as the movie’s insanity escalates with each passing frame. The actor suggests that there is something broken about Laing buried beneath the sharp suits and the cold eyes, but never quite cracking the well-polished surface. Hiddleston presents Laing as a man who would happily drift through the apocalypse without breaking a sweat.

The rest of the cast is similarly impressive. Of particular note is Luke Evans as Richard Wilder and Sienna Miller as Charlotte Melville, along with Jeremy Irons as Anthony Royal and Elizabeth Moss as Helen Wilder. Although James Purefoy and Reese Shearsmith may go a bit broad in their performances, the ensemble helps to ground the movie’s more surrealist twists in an uncanny psychological realism. High-Rise might not be a flattering glimpse of human nature, but its cynicism is frighteningly convincing in places.

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High-Rise is perhaps too messy and chaotic for its own good, but that seems oddly appropriate given the source material.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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5 Responses

  1. Nice non-review review 🙂 can’t wait to see this, I LOVE Ben Wheatley’s films. Especially the dark, ‘feeling of dread’ type ones…like this 🙂

  2. great “non review”. i really wanna see this. tom hiddleston is such a fantastic actor.

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