Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) feels like he's made it - he's moved into a luxury high-rise, seeking soulless anonymity. However, the building's residents have no intention of leaving him alone and it isn't long before the veneer of civilisation begins to collapse, and darker human urges begin to surface, and Laing's good manners and sanity disintegrate along with the building.
The depiction of human society collapsing into chaos is just as relevant and prescient today, over 40 years after the original JG Ballard novel was written in 1975. Tom Hiddleston (who also narrates the audio-book version) plays Robert Laing, first seen eating the remains of an Alsatian dog, as in the book.
Skipping back to three months earlier, when the complex was barely finished, and Laing is ‘welcomed’ into the ‘High-Rise’ by his fellow inhabitants, it is clear for the most part, that his manners, respect and politeness are no match for the abrasive confidence of many of his neighbours, determined to get him to ‘join in,’ and yet seem unwilling to accept him into their clique.
When the building slides into disrepair, and the luxurious amenities become an ever-growing series of unsightly, inoperable facilities, it seems the residents’ descent into pack mentality had started well before the decay of their world; if anything, the swimming pool, lifts and corridors are simply sliding into a fitting accompaniment to the residents’ wilful degradation. The building is simply accepting the squalor of its occupants.
The recreation of the 1970s is a conservative one, which is probably deliberate; it is doubtful how seriously we could take a story featuring the garish winged collars, flares and safari suits modelled at the time – instead we get more of a suggestion of the fashions from that era. The endlessly pregnant Helen (Elisabeth Moss), very much an innocent compared to the others, happily chain-smokes, without comment from anyone, another sign of the times.
Anthony Royle (the tower-block’s hierarchy?), the architect, floats around the wreckage of his dream like Dr. Moreau, surrounded by the barely human animals he has created. Jeremy Irons is every bit as good as you could imagine him to be. Typically of Ben Wheatley-directed films, the cast are universally good, and full of familiar faces, if not names. Dan Renton Skinner (better known as comic character Angelos Epithemiou) is unrecognisable as brutal Simmons, a character you long to see beaten up – which he is, by Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) who is even more Neanderthal than he. Reece Shearsmith is Nathan Steele, Sienna Miller plays Charlotte Melville, James Purefoy excels as Pangbourne, and Hiddleston is excellent as the central Laing. His character, like that of Helen, only partially succumbs to the toxic new world around them; fitting then, that they appear to form a relationship that may have a future, although nothing and no-one is exclusive.
A film ostensibly about unpleasant people succumbing to their baser instinct is not necessarily a story that justifies two hours, and yet any cuts made to this would rob the film of its potency. The humans presented are us, our society, without the veneer of respectability, policing or media. The lack of interference by the outside world is cursory, which is the only unrealistic aspect of this tale: the authorities simply don’t want to know.
Nothing is fixed; life continues. So as civilisation settles into a biryani of filth, what could be nicer than to sit back, eat the rest of the dog, and listen to a speech from Margaret Thatcher whilst waiting ‘for failure to reach the second tower in the Development.’ Thatcher’s love affair with dividing the rich (on the top floors) from the poor (the lower levels – in every sense) could be echoed here, and again, still echoes now.
This started well and looked fantastic but as time progressed I found myself more and more bored and distracted.
An hour in, I was finding it difficult to continue to care. I checked the run time and found I had another hour.
I gave it five more minutes.
I switched it off.
The problem is this - the depiction of the social order and its evident breakdown is far too repetitive and ought to have been cut drastically. I'm sure I missed some interesting drama at the end - but I just couldn't be bothered to wade through more stylish but hollow repetition.
Not for the first time I find myself thinking that Ben Wheatley makes half of a good film and half of a terrible one and cut and shuts them together.
Shame - I had high hopes for it - no pun intended.
Anarchy in the UK
- High-Rise review by Count Otto Black
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In this unsubtle allegory, a mega-rich man whose surname is Royal (like I said, unsubtle!) builds a 40-story tower-block intended to function as microcosm of society, with everyone's social status indicated by how far up it they live, instals himself in a heavenly penthouse accessible only by a private elevator (so basically he's God), and assumes his innovative social experiment will work out just fine.
It doesn't. Beset by the very specific ills of Thatcher's Britain, in which the film is set - class inequality, power outages, and mounting piles of garbage - the tenants of the lower floors rebel, the upper classes strike back, and by the time equilibrium has been restored, the survivors are ragged savages living among the debris of civilization and eating roast dogs.
Almost nothing in the film is the slightest bit subtle. The basic premise, that all the occupants of the block spontaneously cut themselves off from the outside world (which somehow doesn't notice) in order to wage a symbolic class war, doesn't even pretend to be realistic. Every character is a symbol rather than a person, they often talk in oddly stilted ways, and none of them are particularly likable, though the poorest tenants are portrayed as the nicest, while the richest are monstrously decadent one-dimensional caricatures.
Ben Wheatley's films have consistently shown that, while he's a technically accomplished director willing to explore the blackest of black humor and the most grotesque of situations, his worst failing is that he doesn't know where to draw the line. Sometimes, especially in his debut feature "Down Terrace", the humor becomes so dark that it isn't funny at all, and the grimness is so relentless that it's downright depressing.
Here, given by far his biggest budget to date, he meticulously creates a complex environment with a great deal going on in it, but it's never as involving as it should be, because we simply don't care what happens to most of these horrible people. And once you lose interest in the characters, it soon dawns on you that the scenes of them doing unpleasant things frequently go on for much longer than necessary before the plot advances.
As for Tom Hiddleston's "hero", he's literally an Everyman, the ultimate social mixer who ironically becomes the only tenant to truly fit in while inadvertently triggering the Apocalypse, and he drifts passively through almost all the action, most of which is supplied by a secondary character, the unsubtly-named Wilder, who ought to be the official hero of the film. In a book, it's fine for the protagonist to wander around allowing us to see the action through his eyes but not really doing much himself. In a movie, that function is usually performed by something called a "camera".
It looks splendid, though often in an unpleasant way, but ultimately this film is hollow at its core, and casting the talented and charismatic Hiddleston isn't enough to hide the fact that he's playing a nonentity. Luis Buñuel's 1962 Surrealist masterpiece "The Exterminating Angel" explores a very similar situation on a vastly lower budget, but it's a far better film because Buñuel understood that even if you disapproved of the decadent upper-class characters (which Buñuel, being a member of the Communist Party, obviously did), to enjoy the movie you had to care whether or not they survived. Ben Wheatley needs to work on that.