Beginning, obviously, with Dr Laing barbecuing the dog, having watched Ben Wheatley’s dizzying, experimental High-Rise three times, failing each time to properly grasp its camera angles, editing sharp as actress Sienna Guillory’s cheekbones and even the plot, this review’s late. Damn, this film’s confusing! But so vivid is it, that after watching it, I wanted to again; this film deserves an afterlife, though it’s divided both critics and viewers
Taking JG Ballard’s same title ’75 novel as its premise, Wheatley’s take is both dazzlingly simple yet heterogeneous on a text as porous, yet enduring, as a council flat’s wall. Considering events, including a mysterious fall from the 39th floor, the closing credits have a brilliant joke, The Fall’s Industrial Estate playing us out over a Manchester City blue screen – the ground’s often in view but always viewed from the rose garden-covered upper deck – prepare for the fall, from as high as funny fags.
Located seemingly in a rosy, ideal past Docklands, the high-rise is a luxury 40 storey brutalist quarry in the sky, with swimming pools, mirrored lifts (a bit like the toilets in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil), even a supermarket. But is this decidedly 70’s social experiment (cars the colour of cocktail olives, mocha coloured interiors with retro futurist whoosh) a five star liner or a petri dish? The building’s architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) lives up top in Romanesque splendour with bored wife Anne (Keeley Hawes), drawing up schema for the ‘work in progress’ building (externally it certainly seems finished, a good example of beautiful CGI). But lower down, even professionals like working class documentarian Richard Wilder (Luke Evans)are denied power – literally- as lights begin to fail and power cut’s become frequent (are we beginning to see contemporary references?)
After impressing with lower budget films such as black comedy Kill List (with its occult overtones, a true case of dark arts), this is Wheatley’s biggest budget yet and the decks are scrubbed plush until the rubbish bags form barricades, he and regular DP Laurie Rose make gleeful with the retrospective angle, whilst looking forward – with dread – to Thatcherism and its mantra of right to buy. Whilst a string quartet fiddles out version of Abba’s S.O.S up above, the rigid social structure moulders.
I found the riffs on social aspiration excellent, with organising shots (of an almost Kubrickian elegance) examining the building and cast like patients, the descent in the second half less so. Our protagonist Dr Robert Laing (played with cordial eyed assurance by Tom Hiddleston) gets a proper dream sequence which effectively says, I’m Ballard, fly me, as he sways with red uniformed air hostesses. But there’s a world of difference between the sublimated violence with which the film builds, in, for example, Laing’s teeth-baring argument (about children pissing in the pool) with evilly Brylcreamed dentist Steele and the actual violence shown; it’s dull thuds, anti-climactic (perhaps part of Wheatley’s point), brutal, but kind of alienating as character’s lose explicable arcs.
With Laing’s almost-Everyman (Ballard’s characters tending to be cool amalgams, hard to film) discovering a hitherto unknown purposelessness in his medical school teaching job, he wants higher but finds his place with a passive acceptance. As does as a gynaecologist, whom earlier we’d seen running into the building in glorious slo-mo dressed in full 18thcentury duellist’s garb, spoiling for a fight after his commute; he helps Helen Wilder (Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss) give birth. “I wanted an investment in the future”, Laing says, seemingly without irony.
The more you watch, the more things fall into place with this chimerical film. With all the cast going hammer and tongs at their roles, a traumatic element shouldn’t be written out, especially for Sienna Miller as Charlotte Melville.