Dr. Robert Liang (Tom Hiddleston) has just moved into his new apartment in a high-rise condominium on the outskirts of London. It’s the peak of modern architecture and home to a multitude of people, but the tale of High Rise is rife with class struggle and the trappings of excess.
Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of the 1975 novel of the same name by JG Ballard is many things, but primarily it is a study of the decline of civilization. The titular high-rise in question is the creation of Royal (Jeremy Irons), the architect who resides on the top floor and rules the roost. The declining floors are home to a litany of classes. The lower the floor the worse their standard of life and subsequent treatment by the upper floors. The working class family of Wilder (Luke Evans) and his pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) represent the antithesis of the sanitized higher levels that live in childless luxury. The building was conceived as a “crucible for change” but the metamorphosis that Wheatley shows us is one of utter madness.
The film starts simply enough with modernized efficiency as Liang settles into the rules of regulations of his futuristic home; but in the course of the 3 months that the film shows us it is apparent that the organic effect of anarchy will prove stronger. The tensions that result from this build towards the eventual revolution of the oppressed. However, the revolution that takes place is built on indecency and excess. The “party” that ensues is enough to make Caligula blush.
The cinematography is incredibly focused yet experimental, not shying away from the events depicted on screen – from the drowning of a dog to the forced sexual assault – the world of High-Rise is broken, yet never has it been so captivating. All aspects of its residents are shown, and seemingly hallucinatory effects blends scenes to form a vividly real yet dreamlike aesthetic. The scale of the apartment complex towers above the seemingly vacant city of London, suggesting that this man-made construction is a microcosm outside of reality. A world based in modern society but somehow distanced enough to be able to function by its own laws. Thematically I could talk all day about this film, its presentation of organic versus mechanic, the struggles of class and the abolition of law, but I’ll save that for another day.
Set design in this film is sleek and modern and it’s enthralling to watch it decline as the occupant’s descent into anarchic mayhem. Lower floors embody the 1970’s aesthetics of a British council home whereas higher floors culminate in angular walls and high art galore, by the end of the film they will all be a shade of their former selves.
The sound design is also top notch, with string work and jazzy reworking’s of pop hits punctuating the decline of this postmodern society. A highlight is the Portishead reimagining of ABBA’s SOS, coincidentally a song that came out in 1975; the same year as the novels release.
High-Rise is a study on the unraveling of class and the fractured mentality of its tenants. Hiddleston makes an intriguing protagonist but it’s the building itself that stands out as the main actor in this film. Slow at times, yet purposeful, this is dystopian drama with an unprecedented edge. This is a master class in stylized madness.
5 out of 5