I have a love/hate relationship with Ben Wheatley. Kill List was unnerving and – at times – bloody terrifying, right up until the ending. Sorry, but if I have to go on Google to try and work out what the hell happened in the last few minutes, then the film’s not done its job. With his follow-up, Sightseers, it depended how sick and un-PC your sense of humour was. Me, I loved it. A Field in England was little more than an excuse to show off Laurie Rose’s cinematography skills (a plot would have helped). Now, here we are with Wheatley’s latest: High-Rise. You might wonder why Wheatley’s new film is adapted from a J.G. Ballard novel that’s forty years old, but, in the Tory Britain we live in today, it’s soothsayer, prophet of doom relevant.
Tom Hiddleston (Avengers Assemble, Only Lovers Left Alive) is Doctor Robert Laing, who moves into a flash new apartment block. Meeting his neighbours, he realises that, while everyone pays the same rent, not everyone is treated equally; the wealthier folk on the higher floors have electricity, hot water, full access to the facilities whenever they want, while those on the lower levels are forced to make do with electric at certain times (if the power comes on at all) and wait around several weeks for any maintenance issues to get fixed. Tensions mount and it’s not long before anarchy descends, with rape, murder and pillaging becoming as everyday as putting out the bins.
Wheatley’s long-time cinematographer Laurie Rose is back behind the lens, and once again he comes up with some creative, not seen anything like it before imagery: Hiddleston taking out his frustrations on the walls of his apartment while he paints; it’s both cathartic and oddly erotic. The aftermath of an orgy, the flat now a dive, bathed in intense white light, while some of the weary, hungover guests still joylessly rut away. There’s more than a passing hint of the meticulousness and symmetry of Stanley Kubrick’s framing; you’re both entranced and repulsed by what you see, à la A Clockwork Orange or Eyes Wide Shut. Wheatley made the smart decision of keeping the novel’s seventies setting. The wallpaper, gigantic sideburns, and vintage cars make High-Rise unlike anything you will have seen for a good long while.
The trouble is High-Rise’s subtext, it’s not exactly subtle. Thirty minutes in and you already know who’s in the firing line and where things are going. As the divide between Britain’s upper and lower class widens, the country is destined to come crumbling down; The British people are distracted by celebrity and consumerism, ignorant to the pressing problems going on around them. You can’t argue with what Ballard was trying to say in his novel (spookily, released on the eve of Margaret Thatcher becoming prime minister), it’s how Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump force feed you the social commentary, so much so, you’re wondering what else the film has to offer. The answer? Not a lot else.
I get that you’re meant to judge the characters you see onscreen rather than care about them, the issue with High-Rise is that nothing vaguely thrilling or attention grabbing happens to anyone. Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange was a loathsome, hideous human being, but you were compelled to watch because his own brutality was matched by the brutality of the state in trying to make him “better”. Here, there’s no build-up to the Lord of the Flies anarchy that ensues, it just happens, and keeps happening, and keeps happening, and doesn’t go anywhere. Rose’s cinematography and Mark Tildesley’s production design can only do so much. Without a narrative, without some significant change in the characters, there’s nothing to keep you watching.
The cast look like they’re sleepwalking through the film, with virtually nothing to do. I’ve not read Ballard’s novel, but maybe the point of Hiddleston’s Doctor Laing is that he sees the tower block rotting from the inside and is indifferent to it all? Whatever the reason, Hiddleston has little to do acting-wise except be icy, reserved, and shag his way through the female cast.
Jeremy Irons (The Lion King, Die Hard with a Vengeance), as the tower block’s architect, Anthony Royal, has some occasional weighty dialogue to get you thinking (“I wanted this building to be a crucible for change… Clearly, I missed something”.), but apart from an impressive plum British accent, and an even more impressive white suit, Irons plays your typical, authority figure gone mad, Doctor Caligari role.
Luke Evans (The Hobbit, Fast and Furious 6) is the only cast member given any real acting work, as journalist and documentary filmmaker Richard Wilder, though his transformation from a morally dubious, opportunistic, seventies Piers Morgan to embracing the anarchy around him just seems to happen. He goes off screen one minute and comes back a changed man.
High-Rise is less a film, more a series of chaotic scenes of Britain’s well-to-do killing and ripping each other’s clothes off. It’s like something you expect to see at the Tate Modern. There’s no tension, barely any humour, and quickly outstays its welcome (and at almost two hours, that’s a long time). If the BAFTAs had an award for style over substance, High-Rise would win it hands down.
2 out of 5