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High Rise – Review


Release Date: 28 April 2016 [USA]
Director: Ben Wheatley
Writer: J.G. Ballard [novel] - Amy Jump [Screenplay]
Cast: Tom Hiddleston - Jeremy Irons - Sienna Miller - Luke Evans



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Posted April 2, 2016 by

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High Rise Review:

Full disclosure: six people walked out of the Monday night screening of High Rise that I attended. Evidently, in spite of the presence of Tom Hiddleston in his first leading role, this was not the mainstream dating movie they were looking for.

High Rise was published in 1975 by the British author J G (James) Ballard. To describe Ballard’s work as science fiction is wide of the mark. Let’s say, he picks up modernism and gives it a good shake. His films might have futurist elements, but it is firmly located in the author’s present. The action is narrowly circumscribed, limited to a few locations or actions. I say this not on the basis of reading his work, rather watching the two film adaptations of it: this and David Cronenberg’s Crash starring James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger.

The title refers to a block of flats, though not the sort I grew up in. The unnamed ‘high rise’ houses families by social class. The lower orders reside on the lower floors; the ‘architect’ (Jeremy Irons) luxuriates in a penthouse. The building contains every modern convenience: a supermarket, a swimming pool. However, the rubbish chutes get blocked up by nappies. This is a particular white British version of the past (or future): there are no immigrants here.

Robert Laing (Hiddleston), who is clearly named after Scottish psychologist R D Laing, is a specialist in the human brain. He is a consultant, teaching occasionally, peeling back the skin of a human face to reveal a skull. But he doesn’t let anyone near his own head. His sister recently died but he doesn’t like to talk about it. At one point, a boy asks him, ‘what’s it like being the only one?’ Laing laughs it off, but he is an anomaly, neither posh enough for the penthouse – he turns up at a party in his suit and not the French Dandyish attire of the other guests – nor ‘common’ enough for the lower floors. He does however attract the admiring gaze of his upstairs neighbour, single mother Charlotte (Sienna Miller).

The plot is about the descent into chaos triggered by – well, it isn’t exactly clear. A body tumbles from the 39th floor and hits a car bonnet – very Crash – but it isn’t exactly a catalyst. TV journalist Wilder (Luke Evans, channelling Oliver Reed down to the moustache) appears to be stirring up discontent and at one point organises the crashing of a pool party. But there are no leaders, only doers.

Clearly, the building has an influence on the characters –brutal architecture nurtures savage actions. This is one reason why we don’t identify with Laing or anyone. At one point, there is an extended fight over paint. Not food, paint! Clearly, co-writer-director Ben Wheatley was going for black comedy – or waste overflow grey comedy, if you take into account the paint colour.

In as much as the film builds up to something, Wilder’s wife (Elisabeth Moss) is heavily pregnant – so heavily, she resembles a chintz bell. There will be a birth. We sense too that Wilder will confront the architect – he loses his job on TV and vows to make a programme about the high rise. ‘Another prison documentary?’ someone asks. Wilder also desires Charlotte; the pay-off for this is unsurprisingly cruel.

For those familiar with The Towering Inferno, the architect resonates. There, the unnamed man was played by Paul Newman. Jeremy Irons, chain-smoking slightly less than the rest of the cast (it is the 1970s) plays architect Anthony Royal as a neutered man in a sexless marriage, who attempts to grant his wife’s every whim even though she has eyes for another woman. This being the high rise, there is no talk of Paris, of travel. Language is only learned to compliment the bread products on sale.

What of Hiddleston? His conspiratorial smile barely gets a look in. If the film was made in the 1970s, with perhaps Nicolas Roeg at the helm – there are some decidedly Roeg elements – I could imagine Robert Powell as Laing. Hiddleston is good at conveying a man who keeps his own counsel, but this doesn’t bode well for character development. Everyone else in the film is two dimensional, except Charlotte’s son, Toby (Louis Suc) who looks at the world through a kaleidoscope.

The film High Rise most resembles is Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend. My favourite moment of droll comedy occurs when Laing declines to give Wilder a lift to the TV station because he can’t find his car. ‘I can’t either,’ Wilder admits. The film is full of incidents and tension but is never as visually inspired as the traffic jam sequence in Weekend. I suspect a Nouvelle Vague sensibility is really what is needed to elevate High Rise – to step out of the action. Another point of reference is Lindsay Anderson’s Mick Travis trilogy – Anderson himself opted for the surrealist route.

The problem with High Rise is that it dawdles when it should doodle. It is a black comedy that doesn’t always let the viewer in on the joke. At certain points, Laing is absent from the narrative. He keeps to himself, re-modelling. That no one has aspirations is part of the joke. That no one talks about their past or life outside the high rise is a point about modernism being a distraction from the real. Nowadays, it would be represented by people staring at their mobile phones, lost in their twitter feed. Visually, it uses angles and mirrors, triangles and darkness. It lacks a presence, someone to watch, to excite curiosity. Wheatley, who is best known for the palpable sense of foreboding created in his breakthrough film, Kill List, doesn’t find the right style. And he can’t do much with the blatant sexism of the source material. Sexual violence takes place, less distasteful than it might, off screen, but at least two women are struck. I can’t call High Rise a pleasure but it does make the point that modernist obsessions make us less human. We thrill to the new at our peril.


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Larry Oliver
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