Ben Wheatley’s adaption of J.B. Ballard’s novel High Rise serves up a platter of dark humour, brilliantly encapsulating the rapid changes that rocked 1970’s Britain. Published in the same year Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party, Wheatley’s adaption captures the fragility of the class system, focusing predominantly on the isolated communities living in the high-rise. Organised by wealth, the poorest live at the bottom and the wealthier at the top making the high-rise act as a microcosm of English society.
The film opens in a state of post-apocalypse as we watch a blood-splattered Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) sitting nonchalant on his balcony, waiting patiently for some dog meat to cook. Flashback to three months earlier, all is very different as we follow Laing clean-shaven, enter the high-rise 40-story enclave, ready to be seduced by the lavish lifestyle, where for now dog meat seems off the menu.
Laing explains that he is ‘buying for the future’, but Ballard’s vision of the future is concrete and brutalist, captured in Laurie Rose’s stunning cinematography featuring panoramic shots of the tower-block building site, with more emerging on the outskirts of London. But it is the isolation and convenience of sky life that Laing indulges in, including the in-built supermarket, swimming pool and gym. But something seems off, sinister almost and unpleasant. At work Laing calmly strips away the facial features of a disembodied head with his students watching the skin peel away.
It is this slight complexity in Hiddleston’s characterisation, which draws other characters to him, including the bubbly Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) and the upper classes, including the architect fittingly named Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Whilst the upper floors representing the wealthier residents are drawn to Laing, he is never fully accepted as one of them. Positioned in the middle of the high-rise, Laing becomes the perfect flâneur, watching unfazed as cracks begin to emerge under the seemingly pleasant life-style. As night falls, Wheatley captures the spirit of seventies swing parties, with surrealist scenes of orgies, drug-use and occasional sadism.
As moral corruption grows within the concrete confines of the high-rise, more cracks begin to emerge as power-cuts grow rife in the lower sections of the tower that house the poorer residents. The repeated refrain that the building needs to settle further infuriates the lower classes, who pay the same amount for electricity as the above floors, fuelling an inevitable class battle. Brutality boils over as the building gives in to the moral corruption, causing each floor to fall into a cascade of nervous breakdown, intensifying the swing parties, leading to unpleasant scenes of violence.
Whilst many might question why on earth doesn’t he just leave?! This is the very point of the Ballard’s future, Laing poses the most dangerous out of all the others, as the man who sees the world around him fall apart but reacts through adaption alone and casually repainting his room; reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick film adaption of A Clockwork Orange, High-Rise is grotesque, arguably for too long, though all the same engrossing for the watcher.
Wheatley’s dystopian adaption of High-Rise is sleekly done and manages to encapsulate the growing uncertainty within the seventies era. Balancing dark humour with dry wit it will leave you gripped to your seat and slightly repulsed.