As of this writing, High-Rise ranks very highly in several of my awards categories, and for good reason: in certain particulars it’s an unqualified success. It’s superbly directed, gorgeously designed and photographed, and well acted. Its best scenes can be treasured by the keen viewer.
And yet, it is not even in my top 10 films of the year to date, and a lot of it comes down to the story. Based on J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, I am not entirely sure how much High-Rise has to offer a contemporary audience. But is the issue the source material, or the way director Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump brought it to the screen?
I previously published my initial thoughts on the film with the proviso that they would be incorporated into my final review. That is precisely what I have done here.
I had expected something like Snowpiercer, only vertical—rich vs. poor, with a godlike creator figure looming over it all and liberally spiced with dark humor. But a better comparison could be made to Tati’s Play Time, only taken to a brutally dark extreme. I may be too fixated in general on trying to discern the points of films—on finding the kernel of a theme upon which I can seize and expound on for a couple of thousand words. When I cannot grasp the theme, I feel stupid, as if I have literally lost the ability to understand anything beyond the most obvious narratives and themes.
A brief summary is in order. Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a brand-new state-of-the-art high-rise (my, that was a lot of hyphenation), and soon meets the building’s designer, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), who seems to respect more than he respects anyone else – or, for that matter, more than anyone seems to respect Laing. Laing is invited to a party hosted by Royal’s wife Ann (Keeley Hawes), but unaware that the event is a 18th-century costume party, he is met with scorn and quickly ejected by Royal’s brusque right-hand man, Simmons (Dan Renton Skinner).
Meanwhile, the new building is increasingly plagued by issues both technical – power fluctuations, accumulating garbage, etc. – and personal – the middle and working-class inhabitants of the tower’s lower floors grow resentful of the wealthy inhabitants of the upper floors. Documentary filmmaker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) begins to actively foment unrest, and bit by bit the building descends into an increasingly self-contained shit-storm.
It was not until partway through, realizing that the narrative drive I anticipated was not part of the scheme (and, to be fair, narrative drive does not seem to be one of Ben Wheatley’s strengths), that I realized that the film, and presumably J.G. Ballard’s source novel, is a reflection of what the world was going through in the 70s, filtered through an intensely nihilistic satire.
As with his previous film A Field in England, Wheatley proves skilled at creating moments but less capable of fusing them into an effective whole. Jump wrote the script for Field as well, but I had hoped that High-Rise, being adapted from a novel, would have the narrative strength the original script for Field lacked. Having never read the novel, I cannot say precisely whose fault it is that it does not.
But the script really is not that strong on its own (I rank it 8th for the year to date, and the competition is not overwhelming). There’s good dialogue to be heard (“Like all poor people, she’s obsessed with money”), but I summed it pretty well in my initial thoughts:
The frequent power outages seem inspired by the 70s energy crisis. The savage depiction of the upper class reflects the prevalent anti-establishment attitude. And the descent into chaos of the gleaming new high-rise is a grim elegy for the last gasp of real futurism; the golden future of innovation undone by the failures of humanity.
Perhaps the story begins its descent into chaos too soon; scarcely has Laing moved into the high-rise than things begin to go wrong, and without a sense of stability lost, the chaos loses a bit of its impact. Then again, in the cynical 70s, the notion of stability itself might have seemed rather naïve.
Is the fault mine that I think the film loses something for not grounding its reality before disrupting it? Either way, I think it does: it is hard to appreciate loss when you don’t know what has been lost, and I just don’t think we do here.
Of course, this raises the possible point that the material is too much rooted in the 70s to be of more than historical interest to the modern viewer. Wheatley and Co. argue otherwise—but knowing little about the novel and not all that much more about the state of the modern high-rise, I’d be willing to guess there are a few reference points I’m missing which would maximize my appreciation.
This is a point I really cannot shake, and I’d really like to read the novel and confirm or dispel this notion. Because, really – what is this film saying that we don’t already know? Even allowing for the fact that true thematic revelation is incredibly rare, the theme of the rich oppressing the poor (well, in this case, more like the middle class) is a particularly played-out one, and the film doesn’t come up with a really fresh angle to overcome that. And when the film brings in the voice of Thatcher at the very end, it not only comes off as sophomoric liberalism, but it also dates the film further.
I still found a lot to appreciate. Amy Jump’s script has some fine lines, and Wheatley’s direction is often magnificent; there are two crucial death scenes which rank among the most macabrely striking of recent memory. There are some truly brilliant images and incredible production design.
I currently rank High-Rise as the 22nd best film of the year, but the direction as the 3rd best. Granted, these rankings aren’t scientifically determined, but there’s still a distinct gap between the weaknesses of the writing (the script is my 13th best Adapted Screenplay, behind Ghostbusters, Deadpool, and Star Trek Beyond) and the strengths of the production – the film currently comes in 1st for me in Cinematography, Production Design, and Costume Design.
The film looks simply marvelous throughout. The high-rise itself is an immensely impressive set, initially mixing a kind of sterile Brutalism (so much concrete) with 70s kitsch (though all kudos to PD Mark Tildesley for not playing up the kitsch factor; it’s decidedly of the period, but not a parody of it like, say, Space Station 76), and gradually devolving into a grotesque, refuse-riddled parody of itself. The control exercised over the design is simply stunning. And the costumes, encompassing not only 70s fashion, but that fashion torn and decayed, and the 18th-century fashions seen at Ann’s costume party, are a consistent triumph on the part of the memorably-named Odile Dicks-Mireaux.
And Laurie Rose’s cinematography shows off the impressive design while enhancing the story’s themes of de-evolution and mass hysteria superbly. Allegedly, Rose shot the exteriors on 70mm, while the interiors were shot on digital; I couldn’t tell the difference, but it’s worth noting.
From Laing reflected endlessly in the mirrors of an elevator, to Wilder floating in a swimming pool turning red with blood, to a television glowing in the midst of a rubbish heap, to those two deaths, one shown in eerie slow-motion (it’s the death depicted on the poster) and the other viewed through a kaleidoscope, stylized almost like a ballet, the film is rich with precisely controlled imagery. It all reinforces my fundamental frustration with Wheatley, whose style is as thrilling as his storytelling is lacking.
I should also mention the soundtrack, anchored by Clint Mansell’s very solid score, but perhaps achieving its greatest triumph with this cover of ABBA’s “SOS”:
And the cast does well for themselves; Tom Hiddleston is a properly bemused protagonist, maintaining some semblance of himself amidst the descent into madness. Luke Evans, as a rabble-rousing documentarian, is by turns relatable and utterly uncouth. Sienna Miller finally gives a performance I can appreciate as Charlotte, who begins as a free-spirited enigma and ends as a haunting one. Jeremy Irons is a suitably grotesque architect, a mastermind of the high-rise who can’t quite comprehend the horrors he’s helped to bring about. Elisabeth Moss and Louis Suc (as a child who is in his way wiser than anyone else in the building) also offer strong performances.
Not a ton to add here. I do wish Hiddleston had a bit more to work with (passiveness is not his best note), but he’s always worth watching. Evans is truly strong, however, with one scene in particular standing out to me: Wilder, by now beaten and bloodied, picks up a tape recorder and says his name, first clearly, then gradually louder and less coherently, until he’s screaming like an animal. It’d make a hell of an Oscar clip. It’s harder to elucidate why I think Miller does so well (beyond merely giving an actual solid performance rather than the vaguely anonymous supporting turns I’ve previously seen from her), but she does. Perhaps it’s that she shows Charlotte’s own descent in a subtler but no less effective manner than Evans shows Wilder’s.
I appreciated Irons’ performance even more on a second viewing; he uses his glorious voice and dry manner to superb effect, underscoring what a heartless bastard Royal really is. Moss continues to impress, here as Wilder’s wife Helen, perennially pregnant and seemingly trapped by it, her quiet desperation simmering beneath a placid exterior. Suc avoids the pitfalls many child actors fall into, having a particularly solid by-play with Hiddleston. And the rest of the cast, including Hawes and Skinner, perform at a consistently strong level. It’s a fine ensemble (I rank it 5th for the year to date), and makes the film ever more worth watching.
High-Rise has given me a lot to chew on, and I cannot say but that it is a good film, though how good I require further meditation and a second viewing to determine. But that will come, and with it something like my final thoughts. When I write them up, I’ll incorporate this post, akin to my reviews of Mad Max: Fury Road and Leonard Part 6.
It’s a good film. Even a very good one, though only in a select few scenes at all great. In some ways, it’s an extremely frustrating film for not being better, but I can’t deny the power of the filmmaking on display or the strength of the performances. Perhaps the best note to end on would be the trailer, which compresses many of the best lines and most striking images into two minutes. If it whets your appetite for more, well, there’s enough to justify your time.