‘Where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find.”
41 years after its publication, J. G. Ballad’s High-Rise proves itself to be scarily accurate in its predictions of the then-future and our now-present. The film adaptation is equally brutal and dark, tinted with the blackest of humours. Deciding to set it in the time period in which it was written, director Ben Wheatley succeeds in using Ballad’s bleak hypothesises of societal hierarchy to transform the big screen into a mirror reflecting our darkest innermost fears. This review comes from the preview screening and Q&A session I attended at the British Library (Hello to Galia, Alison and Alex…)
London. 1975. Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a psychologist, movies into a high-rise building having been seduced by the lifestyle it would bring with it. The building itself is isolated from the rest of London and is so self-contained with a supermarket, gym and swimming pool that, aside from work, there is little reason for the residents to leave. They are cut off from the rest of society in their luxury tower block. The higher your floor the higher your status – Laing takes up residence on floor 25, his new friend Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) is on floor 26 and the architect of the building, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and his wife Ann (Keeley Hawes), take up the entire top floor. Laing also comes into contact with a family relegated to the second floor, BBC documentary-maker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), his heavily pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and their two children. When Wilder becomes so embittered by the social hierarchy he decides it will be the focus of his next project. A dangerous situation develops causing a domino effect which leads to the fragmentation of the residents and formulation of violent tribes.
Where to start when reviewing this film? It’s excellent, terrific and truly haunting in equal measures. Like many of Ben Wheatley’s films High-Rise is of the ‘well-that-escalated-quickly’ genre. However, this film does not require a suspension of belief for the dissention into madness. Whilst accelerated the resulting horrors stems from social resentment that has been apparent since time immemorial. History showcases time and time again society’s that form then self-destruct that little exposition is required in High-Rise to explain why things get so bad so quickly (not that I can really imagine Wheatley wanting to spoon-feed us in this way). The script is bitterly funny, laden with comments that are iceberg-en in terms of depth. Social commentary is rarely this sharp-tongued, appalling yet absurdly funny.
Wheatley doesn’t waste a shot in the telling of this story; countless viewings would be required to access even half of the detail and imagery it possesses. And practically every shot could be printed out as a still and put on a wall, for the cinematography and mise-en-scene is otherworldly in its beauty. There’s the generic, unbranded supermarket made of quadrilaterals in primary colours, the kaleidoscopic parties of the various factions, the riding of a white house across the luminescent greenery of the rooftop garden and the seemingly innocent shades of grey of a certain floor 25.The blend of lighting and framing makes for sequences that are fraught, depraved and agitating. This is only exasperated by the incredible soundtrack, with two appearances of ABBA’s ‘S.O.S’ (hence the subheading of this review) that bring chills in way that one would never have though possible. At one point the BAFTA award makes a cameo, which Wheatley later explained he chose to include as it ‘would be the closest he’d ever get to an actual BAFTA’. It would be an utter travesty if for visuals and soundtrack alone High-Rise is not recognised and justifiably awarded.
Speaking of awards, there’s then the performances of the cast. Hiddelston as Dr.Laing, a self-contained possessor of wide-eyed optimism and underlying volcanic rage, is a match made in heaven. Wheatley spoke of his having Hiddelston’s ‘photo on the fridge’ during pre-production and casting as they (they being Wheatley and wife Amy Jump who wrote the script) viewed him as the perfect candidate. But, whilst Moss, Miller, Hawes and Irons are all good in equal measure it is Luke Evans performance that is stand-out to that of Hiddelston’s. If Laing is untapped rage cloaked in a suit, then Evans as Wilder is the untamed man. Evans must have come close to the edge in making this film, for his character is a powerhouse of bitterness and injustice whose raging against the machine is awash with inevitable destruction.
With so many reasons to see High-Rise; the performances, the script, the visuals are just three broad reasons which should justify you’re purchasing a ticket upon the film’s release next week.
Go see it and be haunted for days afterwards.