“It takes a lot of determination to row against the current,” our polished protagonist Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is informed upon his arrival in the soaring setting of Ben Wheatley’s J.G. Ballard adaptation, High-Rise (2015). Having moved into an apartment on the 25th floor, he’s surveying the scene at a 40th floor party, realising that social mobility won’t be as simple as riding the glassy mirrored lift. Ballard’s novel converted a tower block into a powder keg of class warfare and while the aforementioned scene and others nod towards thematic heft, Wheatley and writer Amy Jump are far more interested in witnessing the explosion – in all its delirious spectacle.
This approach is certainly in keeping with a filmmaking team that revels in mystery, refusing to spoon-feed its audience and challenging them to make up their own minds about what they’re seeing. However, in this instance, it doesn’t pay off quite so well. As the high-rise descends into chaos and debauchery there’s distinct lack of bones on which to hang its admittedly alluring flesh. It does feel as though we’re observing the pandemonium from a safe distance – perhaps within one of the other similar buildings being erected in the distance – rather than being consumed by it as the novel managed so comprehensively. This is evident in Laurie Rose’s smooth and assured cinematography which Wheatley has admitted feels more classically cinematic due to a comparative lack of previous budgetary concerns.
There’s still much visual fun to be had, crescendoing in an unhinged kaleidoscope shot; the photography always impressive even when it’s less bombastic. Rose uses the brutalist architecture well, embedding it in her compositions and allowing it to creep into the edge of frames. Even if it never takes on the same deep import as in the source material, the high-rise is definitely a primary character of this vision. Other characters play a similar role as cyphers moving up and down through power cuts and the piles of filth and debris that litter the hallways once the amenities have been compromised. Hiddleston’s Laing is, in fact, tellingly referred to as an amenity himself by the sexy mover-and-shaker who lives upstairs, Charlotte (Sienna Miller). Her parties are the life and soul of the middle section, where Laing comes into contact with the bullish Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his wife, Helen (Elisabeth Moss). Hundreds of feet above them lives the building architect, Royal (Jeremy Irons) and his vacuous wife, Ann (Keeley Hawes).
The upper-class hold a sneering contempt for those on the lower rungs, particularly those with grubby children and the clash of these two groups, instigated by Wilder, serves as the inciting incident for an orgy of excess and violence. While all of the performances are good up to a point, character is largely subservient to the anarchy. This is neatly edited into remarkable musical interludes that progress the nihilism to pop songs and Clint Mansell’s more-classical score. Portishead’s rendition of Abba’s S.O.S. manages to be evocative and on the nose – much like Margaret Thatcher’s voice serving as an epilogue. The politics serves as a footnote to the aesthetic for Wheatley, and his High-Rise is certainly style over substance. For fans of this particular British director, that may well be more than enough.
The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.