Director: Ben Wheatley
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Elizabeth Moss
Spoilers Within: N
Originally posted 19th May 2016 on Letterboxd.
Starring both physical and environmental brutalism, High-Rise is a surreal trip into the microcosmic class structure of the titular tower block. I’ve not read the J. G. Ballard novel the film is based on, so the coldness of my review are due to this adaptation, rather than any issues with the source material.
Genres flit in-and-out of the narrative: blackly comic one minute, socioeconomic drama the next; a compound of ideas that comes as both a blessing and a curse to the pacing. This lack of focus derails the film somewhere around the half-way point, as some of the more important moments get bogged down with extraneous characters wherein it’s never fully clear what is trying to be said. This is the polar opposite of other scenes in the film, which somewhat obnoxiously frame the parables front and centre (see the final shot for a glaring example). This is a film of two distinct ideas, which I’m certain is not a fault of the source material (though anyone who has read it should correct me if I’m wrong).
It’s a film that feels like it’s made of short vignettes entwined around a singular character (Tom Hiddleston’s Dr. Laing) watching as things literally and figuratively crumble around him, dipping into the lives of the other tower block residents and only sticking with the most narratively important characters in order to reach its pre-destined conclusion. The tower block itself feels like its own character, with a living and finely balanced ecosystem that is obsessively and uniquely designed to make it feel entirely populated. This begs particular mention to the art department who not only make it seem like each floor has a different community to mirror their class status, but also – in costumes and character traits – gives each inhabitant their quirks, no matter how slight. It’s an impressive feat of craftmanship in making it feel like the building has its own soul.
In spite of the moments of narrative stalling, the fact that every actor gets right into the thick of their roles makes the film engrossing, even if their arcs start and end within the scene, or serve as nothing more as a propellant to further another character’s motivation. It’s superb casting across the board, from Hiddleston, to Elizabeth Moss, right down to the mostly unknowns of Dan Skinner (the creator of the brilliant Shooting Stars alter ego Angelos Epithemiou) and Nymphomaniac‘s Stacy Martin. It’s essentially a who’s-who of UK talent, which isn’t a bad thing. There’s not really a dud amongst them, so even when the pacing stumbles, there’s always a wry smile or wonderfully delivered line to pick up the slack.
High-Rise is a merry-go-round of the absurd, with ham-fisted political statements to make alongside the dreamlike imagery that has been so meticulously crafted by the team. It may not be Ben Wheatley’s best, and it’s certainly not one of the best of the year, but it has enough playfulness, originality, and beauty amongst the rubble of the ruined building that it’s far from being a failure.