18th Aug2020

Rewind: ‘High Rise’ Review

by Chris Thomas

In the latest in his series of Rewind reviews looking back at the career of writer/director Ben Wheatley, Chris takes a look at his 2015 film, High Rise.

Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Peter Ferdinando, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith | Written by Amy Jump | Directed by Bean Wheatley

Ben Wheatley films are rather good, so I have been re-watching them. The latest is High Rise, which is based on the 1975 novel by J.G Ballard. I was a big fan of the novel, and this is an excellent telling of a wonderfully chilling story. Dr Lang (Tom Hiddleston) is newly arrived at a new high-rise development (Canary Wharf… before Canary Wharf was a thing). Lang can put on whatever mask is required to fit into his circumstances. As he moves in, he is introduced to a love interest, Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller). He also meets the muscular Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and the architect (Jeremy Irons), who lives at the very top floor and conceived and built the tower block. The tower is designed to be self-enclosed, for the elite of society to get away, in splendid isolation from the problems of the wider society. There is a supermarket, a swimming pool, a squash court.

Very quickly people start to forget what is happening in the wider world. They forget where their car is parked, they stop going to work. The real work is there, in the tower.

In no time at all there are issues with the power, nappies are blocking up the rubbish shoots and suddenly the pristine building is starting to look rather shabby. The seemly homogenous group of “elite” people who live in the building are quick to split into factions, the higher floors look down on the lower floors (the tower is a literal and elegant metaphor for many things in the story). Some become obsessed with the idea of self-improvement, literally moving to a higher floor, but quickly things become set, status becomes fixed. The residents find power in parties, and alcohol and drugs become key parts of life, as the food rots and the supplies and access to the outside world dry up. People forget that there is an outside world at all.

The book spends far more time explaining that the madness is caused by the building itself, the unnatural state of so many people living in a concrete filing cabinet and the inevitable insanity that would cause, however the film is less focused on this. The architect puts it down to tiny imperfections in his design, he is constantly at work, redesigning the blueprints of a building that is already finished. In the book the building itself is as much of a “character” as Lang. This is still partly true of High Rise, but it takes a back seat.

We establish early in the film that Lang’s family are all dead, whereas in the book there is a brother, sister incest subplot. The film may sidestep this, but there is plenty of hedonism to go around, as the madness increases, as the bodies pile up the lavish parties get wilder and wilder. As things go, the character Wilder becomes obsessed with documenting what is happening (but you get the feeling there is no film in his camera).

The key themes are class, the id, the ego, and the super ego. Status, which manifests itself in “floors” (the higher, the better naturally). It is a slightly arty horror film where the monster is manifested in the desires and motivations of our characters.

As usual with Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, the film making is impeccable. The film is elegantly set, as it explains in both a past, and a future simultaneously (the 1975 novel had the plot set shortly after that date). It is a horror film, in the same sense Animal Farm is a horror film, but High Rise has much more texture to it. The characters might well be “mad” but during the film the goalposts for what is “mad” and what is “sane” move dramatically and Lang has the agility to keep himself precisely at the middle of things.

Of Ben Wheatley’s films, that I love this might be my favourite. It is a wonderfully accomplished piece of film making, telling an incredible story that many have attempted to make into a film, but none have previously managed. The acting is universally excellent, as is the cinematography, the sound design (the various nods to ABBA are superb). The flavour of horror does not unbalance the tale, which while entirely mad seems eerily plausible when told with this much skill. Tom Hiddleston is extraordinary as Lang; it sticks out in my mind as one of the absolute best performance I can think of from any film I have seen.

Ben Wheatley, and the few directors like him are the reason I love film as a medium.


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