Produced by Jeremy Thomas
Written by Amy Jump
Based on High Rise by J.G. Ballard
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons,
Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss,
James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes
A surreal class struggle set in an ultra-modern high-rise apartment building, based on the 1975 J.G. Ballard novel of the same name, High-Rise begins very promisingly but ultimately wears out its welcome.
Tom Hiddleston plays Dr. Laing (possibly inspired by the real-life psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who notably wrote about mental illness and psychosis).
He moves into the brand-new apartment building and soon befriends his sexy upstairs neighbor Claire (Sienna Miller), who catches him sunbathing nude on his balcony. (Yes, there is a good amount of nearly naked Hiddleston, if that’s your main motivation for seeing this.)
Much like David Cronenberg’s eerily similar first film Shivers (also from 1975), this self-contained community has nearly everything a resident would ever need, including a grocery store and a gym. A Lord of the Flies mentality sets in alarmingly early: Even though there is an entire world outside the building, the residents are curiously reluctant to leave.
Eventually, the lower floors are reduced to living in filth and squalor while the upper floors party with the end-of-the-world decadence usually ascribed to Rome before it got sacked.
The heavy-handed class allegory is very much like Snowpiercer, except that with that sci-fi film, the last inhabitants on earth can’t ever leave the train that circles endlessly through a vast ice-bound wasteland. Here, everyone is free to leave, but mysteriously chooses to stay, even when they run out of food and are reduced to eating dogs.
Laing quickly gets swept up in a growing class feud between the upper and lower floors, where the (literally) higher-ups live like kings and the less fortunate complain about the lack of light and spotty electricity. He’s summoned to meet The Architect (Jeremy Irons), who lives in the penthouse where his wife (Keeley Hawes) dresses in period clothing and keeps a horse and a goat in her elaborate roof garden.
Laing is invited to a penthouse soiree but isn’t told that everyone is dressed up as if it were the French Revolution (point taken, ahem): While the lower floors envy him his connection to the upper floors, he’s not accepted by the Haves either. He’s a bit like Ryan Phillippe in Gosford Park, who unsuccessfully tried to straddle both the working and leisure class and ended up reviled by both.
Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a mustachioed brute who recalls the ’70s era Oliver Reed, becomes the spokesman for the lower floors, first by raiding an exclusive pool party with a pack of unruly kids, then by plotting to kill The Architect whom he blames for the whole building’s ever-increasing descent into mayhem.
While we’re appalled at the unsubtly named Wilder’s actions (which include rape and murder), there’s really no one to root for in this scenario: Not the wealthy Architect and his lofty but unrealized goals, and not Laing, who has his own cruelly violent streak.
The visual style is arresting, notably in the scene in which Laing becomes stuck in a mirrored envelope on his way down from the Penthouse. But ennui sets in about two-thirds through the film, when it seems the building’s downward spiral will never reach bottom. It’s a relief when we finally circle back to the opening scene: Laing making his way through the outer chaos back to his equally destroyed apartment, where he calmly roasts a dog’s leg on the balcony.
If you enjoy dystopian allegories about how society will inevitably fall apart and how man is inherently cruel — or if you just want to see Hiddleston wearing nothing but a towel – then by all means, see High-Rise. It’s (overall) an intriguing film that would greatly benefit from having about 30 minutes trimmed to dramatically sharpen its barbed social commentary.
Rating 3 out of 5