mon 22/07/2024

High-Rise | reviews, news & interviews



Tom Hiddleston suffers Ballardian ultra-violence in a Seventies tower block

Between floors: Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) considers his position

Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) feels he’s “living in a future that had already taken place”. Director Ben Wheatley, too, has made a late-arriving Seventies exploitation pic from JG Ballard’s 1975 novel. High-Rise is a highly sexy and violent look through a distorting lens at both that familiar past, and the way we live now.

Like many similar Ballard tales, its dystopia is cleanly simple, with architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) living in Bourbon splendour with wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) at the top of his new, self-sufficient tower-block. In lower floors, like a concrete Titanic, malfunctions multiply and social oppressions and resentments fester, till the block becomes an island: a little, festering England, going down the drain.

Nic Roeg was producer Jeremy Thomas’s original choice to direct this long-gestating project, when it would have been a roughly contemporary film. Wheatley, like Roeg then, is Britain’s most brilliant director, and with screenwriter wife Amy Jump has seized on his first decent budget and starry cast with reckless gusto. Irons’s cold-blooded, epicene mad scientist (pictured above right with Keeley Hawes), and Hiddleston, watching events with shaky rationality from the equilibrium of the middle floors, are joined by Sienna Miller (pictured below left), superb as a flirty, wry widow, Hobbit star Luke Evans’s dangerously violent blowhard, and Elisabeth Moss as his belittled, pregnant wife.

The Seventies was a golden age for British pulp fiction (Wheatley would also have the nerve for James Herbert’s The Rats), with “the old ultra-violence” of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, like Ballard, part of a climate of gleeful, often grubby extremity. Wheatley nods to this with a glimpse of the infamous “AGGRO! KIDS RULE OK!” cover of a 1976 Action comic, with a chain-wielding young thug threatening a cowering adult, a police helmet by his side. Despite opening High-Rise with Hiddleston roasting a dog, Wheatley and Jump aren’t so crass. They plug into a broader, more colourfully sensual pulp energy, in which Clint Mansell’s orchestral version of Abba’s “SOS” signals the upper floors’ Versailles decadence, Portishead’s later version announces the rot setting in, and rape and riot fuel a sensational carnival. Rape, a highly exploitative Seventies cinema staple, is suffered by one character here with more obvious, upsetting violence than in the book. But Wheatley, the most responsible of transgressive directors, is sensitive in stopping when the pain is understood and, like Ballard, doesn’t leave the gender war within the class one there.

Ramped-up sensation is Wheatley’s gift to British cinema, so often stagey and timidly literal. He’s yet to match Kill List’s shattering dread and violence, and maybe doesn’t care to; every film since, even A Field In England’s psychotropic 17th century nightmare, has felt like relatively soft relief. He’s also politically radical, though final words here from Margaret Thatcher are unfortunately needed to tether High-Rise’s metaphor to London’s schismed present. I suspect I’ll revel in the pleasures here in future viewings. Still, for a film only two hours long, its episodic nature becomes wearing. Points are aimlessly circled back to, much as the floors’ inhabitants do once entropy sets in. As with Royal’s tower, there’s a structural fault.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for High-Rise

Despite opening 'High-Rise' with Hiddleston roasting a dog, Wheatley isn’t so crass


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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Triumph of considerable style over ever-dwindling substance. Is the book really this thin? Vague characterisations - hard-pressed to work out which of the minor characters where which - and Hiddleston seems to be playing himself. Loved many of the contrasts in the varied musical score, though, especially the treatment of SOS.

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