Watching Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise, you find yourself debating whether you are supposed to fully engage with the madness and chaos on screen. Nominally seen through the eyes of new resident Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), this tale of luxury, idealised living descending all too rapidly into violent anarchy is in many ways brilliant, but ultimately feels somewhat unsatisfying.
The High-Rise of the title is a monolith of social experimentation. Simply put, the lower and middle-classes live at the bottom while the well-heeled upper-classes inhabit the higher floors, with the “visionary” architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) at the very top. While the block houses all a disparate community could need, from shops to swimming pools, issues with basic utilities instigate a social rebellion.
So extreme is the story, and so fantastical are the characters, the performances needed to be nigh on perfect, and without exception they are. Sienna Miller, Elizabeth Moss and James Purefoy (enjoyable as a war-mongering toff) all deliver performances of balanced craziness but it is Luke Evans as rebellion leader Wilder who impresses. Flawed and riddled with envy, this “every-man” becomes the voice of the people, before his quest for the top reaches an inevitable conclusion. This is primarily Hiddleston’s film, however, and he portrays the outwardly civilised, inwardly ruthless Laing with suave gusto. Whether subtly causing a fellow resident’s suicide or casually feasting on roast Alsatian, Hiddleston retains a demeanour of imposed control as the events around him become increasingly debauched and dangerous.
The cast vie for top billing with the horrifically beautiful building. Wheatley and his team guide you through the squalor and filth of the corridors, into the varying extremes of the resident’s apartments. Never has such unpleasantness looked so appealing, and Wheatley’s horror-tinged sense of humour is evident in so many of the scenes.
An abundance of great performances then, a setting so ludicrously luscious as to be a visual delight; so why doesn’t High-Rise quite work?
For one thing, the pacing is inconsistent bordering on frustrating. Interactions are drawn out which, while attempting to provide an insight into the confused motivations of the residents, often leaves scenes feeling padded. On other occasions time passes too quickly, with stunted montages offering little assistance as you try to fully absorb all that you see. There is also an intentional lack of a sympathetic character, one to offer balance against this collection of malevolent misfits. While this distancing is important in demonstrating the social decay at the heart of High-Rise, it leaves the film feeling too voyeuristic, too observational, rendering it a cold viewing experience.
There are many conclusions to draw from High-Rise. For some, one viewing will be more than enough, the disjointed narrative too awkward to be enjoyed. For others, repeat viewings will be essential, if only to latterly approach the film with a much more focussed eye, anticipating the lurches in the story and therefore able to experience the film from a different, more relaxed point of view. However you feel, it seems unlikely you will love this film, and perhaps that’s exactly what Ballard and Wheatley would want, but you will need to talk about it.
HIGH-RISE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: BEN WHEATLEY / SCREENPLAY: AMY JUMP / STARRING: TOM HIDDLESTON, JEREMY IRONS, SIENNA MILLER, LUKE EVANS, ELISABETH MOSS / RELEASE DATE: JULY 18TH