It is based upon the much-lauded 1975 novel of the same name by J.G. Ballard, a writer renowned for his subversive storytelling techniques and the pitting of his protagonists against frightening dystopian settings. Being that High-Rise is among his most ambitious, pointed works, interest in adapting the novel has swirled around in the minds of iconoclasts for decades. First it was developed with intentions of Nicolas Roeg directing and Paul Mayersberg writing, then in the early 2000s with Vincenzo Natali directing and Richard Stanley writing, producer Paul Thomas always leading the way. But both fell through.
Excitement was renewed, however, when the visionary Ben Wheatley (2012’s Sightseers, 2017’s Free Fire) purchased the rights from Thomas, with Wheatley’s wife, screenwriter Amy Jump, adapting the novel into a script. And we cannot imagine another director behind the camera — like Edgar Wright, Wheatley is an auteur who most often thinks viscerally, emphasizing aural clarity and costume and set design to best communicate the movie’s hedonistic gloss and the way it steadily rots.
Because Wheatley is so style oriented (visually, High-Rise is unforgettably scrumptious), he unsurprisingly falls victim to the unrelenting auteurist habit of choosing ocular finesse over intellectual provocation. Jump’s screenplay has the components the source material had, namely bonkers commentaries on classism and totalitarianism. But we become so enamored with how High-Rise looks and feels so early on that by the time it starts getting cerebral, our interest wanes. We think we’re in for a sensorial feast, and when the shag carpeting is pulled out from under us and the movie’s ideas start to take precedence over its optical provocations, we aren’t so wont to accept the metamorphosis into psychologically stimulating art.
But High-Rise is so conceptually hypnotic it almost gets away with not completely seeing its aspirations through; we stare at it with the same awe we thrust upon a wall sized Caravaggio painting, threatening to become lost in a cinematic Stendhal syndrome.
Set in the 1970s, it takes place in a gargantuan tower block designed and run by Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), recently opened to the public. Made with the intent of being much more than your typical apartment complex, the 40-story building is fit with grocery stores, gyms, and more impressive commodities per floor. Royal hopes the tower’s dwellers don’t feel the need to partake in the goings-on of the real world. (One catch, though: whichever floor you reside on determines your class, too. The higher you are, the more power you hold.)
We have our protagonist in Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a handsome albeit mysterious physiologist who moves into the tower as soon as it’s unveiled. Without much of a personal life to attend to, he takes it upon himself to get to know the people living around him. There is Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), a dark-haired cat who wouldn’t be out of place in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970), and her young son (Louis Suc), who takes a liking to Laing. Then there are the Wilders, living in one of the cramped rooms with an apparently endless succession of children. Husband Richard (Luke Evans) works in TV but seems more concerned with perfecting the art of the bombast; wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) is months pregnant and seems ready to implode inside her prison of domesticity. And there are also the lavish Mr. and Mrs. Royal themselves, with whom Laing often crosses paths.
But the idealism of the first couple weeks inside the tower dissolves rather quickly. The building is prone to lengthy blackouts courtesy of the structure’s sizable amount of energy consumption. Floors are subjected to such excessive partying that burnout happens on a weekly basis. Contention starts to form between the lower and upper classes. So when one of the building’s inhabitants jumps from the balcony of his room and not a single police officer ever investigates the scene, all erupts.
But the dissolution of harmony is much less interesting than it should be. Because these characters are more types than they are fully formed individuals (save for the wild Mr. Wilder, who we can never quite place thanks to Evans’ appropriately batshit performance), the intensity necessary to make the descent into anarchy enthralling is never really there. Once the pastiched shimmer — supplemented by Wheatley wacko seasoning of it, sometimes with white horses, 18th-century attire, and other oddities on a handful of occasions — ebbs, so does our implacable curiosity.
We contemplate if the primary reason the film doesn’t work so well is because it is so stylistically maximalist: The source material is so thematically weighty that its various commentaries and allegories should be premier. But we’re so concerned with the style that what made the novel so highly regarded gets buried. You likely won’t be seeing a more visually incandescent film in the next few years, though, and that certainly counts for something. C+
1 Hr., 59 Mins.
High-Rise August 18, 2017
f Eve White has three personalities, then High-Rise (2016) has two. One is characterized by self-indulgence and an abiding famishing for pleasure. The other is made up of fire-starting, carrying around anarchic ideologies like a Birkin bag. Those temperaments respectively season the first and second hour of the movie — what we have in the feature is a sordid tale of the come-up of sex, drugs, and partying (we’ll leave out rock ’n’ roll for now, since this isn’t 1998’s Velvet Goldmine), and the unavoidable come-down that follows suit.