High-Rise, film review: Visionary film-making with a head for heights

 (15)​ Ben Wheatley, 119 mins. Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller

Geoffrey Macnab
Thursday 17 March 2016 21:11
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Tom Hiddleston and Elisabeth Moss in Ben Wheatley’s wildly ambitious ‘High-Rise’
Tom Hiddleston and Elisabeth Moss in Ben Wheatley’s wildly ambitious ‘High-Rise’

There is a wonderful moment midway through High-Rise that sums up perfectly its savage satirical thrust. The towering apartment building in which the entire film is set is in a state of festering decay. The aristocratic types near the top are grumbling that the cleaner from down below hasn't put in an appearance for some time, simply because she hasn't been paid. Like all poor people, she is obsessed with money, someone sneers, making it clear that poverty is regarded as an affectation in the worst possible taste.

In adapting JG Ballard's novel, the director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump provide an inspired and very British exercise in grotesquerie. In its own warped way, the film is a lament for the merrie England of the mid- 1970s, just pre-Thatcher.

The production and costume design evoke the era in loving and fetishistic detail. Everything from the Alan Whicker-like blazer and whiskers of the TV presenter Cosgrove to the hairstyles and the flowing floral dresses of the women is lovingly detailed. Wheatley relishes the extreme contrasts found within the building – and between its floors. The film opens with scenes of entropy and extreme decay. The residents are shown living like savages amid the rubble. We are then whisked back in time to the moment that Laing (Tom Hiddleston) first takes up residence. In its stark, modernist way, the skyscraper as he first experiences it is very beautiful but it is rotting from within.

With its ensemble of very British oddballs fighting and fornicating, the film at times resembles Lindsay Anderson's Britannia Hospital, likewise a portrait of a class-ridden, dysfunctional Britain in microcosm, falling apart at the seams. What is impressive here is the way Wheatley combines the comedic elements with moments that are brutal and very disturbing. Amid the mounting chaos, the performances are generally understated. In the face of Armageddon and of corridors filled with garbage bags, all the characters keep their very British sangfroid. Hiddleston is excellent as the young professional who always maintains his poise, whether he is being humiliated at a party on the top floors or making small talk with his upstairs neighbour Charlotte (Sienna Miller) while they have sex.

Luke Evans brings panache and pathos to his role as the lecherous documentary filmmaker, Wilder. As the visionary but demented creator of the building, Jeremy Irons looks as if he's on leave from a David Cronenberg movie.

In its own scattergun way, the film deals with everything from celebrity narcissism (the actress giving out autographs) to class warfare, from voyeurism to the excesses of consumer culture and even a twisted utopianism.

Sometimes, the storytelling is a little crude. The orgy scenes have a whiff of Tinto Brass about them, and some of the jokes seem as if they've been culled from a surrealist sitcom.

This, though, is visionary film-making, wildly ambitious, very caustic and hitting the bull's eye of almost every target in its sights.

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