High-Rise (15) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Ben Wheatley, UK, 2015, 119 mins

Cast:  Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller

Review by Carol Allen

I really disliked Ben Wheatley’s previous films as pointlessly unpleasant and rather  boring – though to be fair a lot of people did enjoy what they perceived as the black humour of “Sightseers” in particular.  With “High Rise” however Wheatley’s work is indeed rising in my estimation.

He has a first class cast here, good camera work and production design, literate source material from a respected novelist (J.G. Ballard’s novel of the same title), but most important of all a strong and very experienced producer in Jeremy Thomas, who has been developing this idea for a very long time.   Thomas has often gone for really off beat and challenging subjects – “Crash”, “Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence” and “The Shout” to name but a few – and this is no exception.   And while it won’t be by any means to everyone’s taste, this is an absorbing, disturbing and often darkly funny piece of work.

The action is set in an ugly high rise block so well appointed, with is own school, swimming pool, supermarket and high-speed elevators that it is effectively an enclosed community, isolated from the outside world.   It is also literally a reflection of the Western class structure, as the lower class are living on the lowest floors of the building, the middle class in the center, and the upper class in the most luxurious apartments on the upper floors.   But soon this enclosed society starts to turn in on itself, as the services start to fail, the swimming pool becomes a sewer and conflicts break out between the lower and upper floors escalating from petty skirmishes into outright battles for territory with extreme violence and murder acted out in a chaotic universe dominated by overflowing rubbish bags and derelict cars.

The central character is Dr Robert Laing (Hiddleston), an affluent young doctor who has just moved in to his apartment, which despite his privileged position on one of the upper floors has echoes of a half completed holiday flat in Benidorm.   While sunbathing nude on his narrow concrete balcony he meets his neighbour Charlotte (Miller) from the flat above and the two are soon enjoying an enthusiastic sexual romp together.

He is also invited to the luxurious penthouse of the architect of the building, Royal (Irons), a somewhat sinister figure, given to throwing orgiastic parties, whose wife (Keeley Hawes), rides around their extensive rooftop garden on a horse – sequences which give the film a somewhat Fellini-ish feeling.  Lower down the building is the rough and tough Luke Evans (Richard Wilder) and his pregnant wife (Elisabeth Moss).  When the troubles begin Luke is one of the most enthusiastic participants, as is Laing’s creepy neighbour Steele (Reece Shearsmith)

Thomas’s guiding hand keeps Wheatley’s previous excesses of bad taste under control, which is not to say it is not still a startling and frequently grisly satire on society.   It doesn’t appear to be set in any particular period – Ballard’s novel was written in 1975 – but the excessive smoking, including by a heavily pregnant woman, clearly indicates that it’s not today.   The theme of how thin and easily destroyed is humanity’s veneer of civilisation and how close to the surface is our suppressed savagery is not a new one but this is an original, contemporary and sometimes surreal take on it.