Director Ben Wheatley and frequent collaborator screenwriter Amy Jump take on J.G. Ballard’s satirical novel of urban living and cultural hypocrisy, and the result is a frustrating experience: visually striking but thematically muddled and far too literal while aiming for the allegorical.
Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston: Crimson Peak, Muppets Most Wanted) has just moved into his new apartment in a residential high-rise building that manages to be both sparkling and oppressive, all concrete and glass, sunlight and dark corners, spacious and airy yet cold and brutal. This spirit rules the community as well, the idealistic aspirations for comfortable modern living giving way to an architectural social hierarchy: the déclassé — such as documentary filmmaker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans: Furious 7, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) and his pregnant wife, Helen (Elisabeth Moss: Truth, Listen Up Philip), and their passel of kids — inhabit the lower levels, with the elite on the upper levels; in the penthouse, the building’s designer, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons: Beautiful Creatures, Margin Call), and his wife, Ann (Keeley Hawes: Doctor Who, The Bank Job) have created a decadent domestic fantasy that Marie Antoinette would envy. On the middle floors, Robert discovers a hedonistic lifestyle of regular cocktail parties and random fucking, as he engages in with his neighbor, Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller: Burnt, Unfinished Business), apparently more out of boredom than any actual desire.
Such inequality cannot endure, of course. With a bit of egging-on by Richard’s agitating — he wants better for himself, and if his family might also benefit from a move upstairs, he wouldn’t mind — it all collapses into actually apocalyptic chaos, with raiding parties to other floors to steal supplies (such as cocktail mixers) and people roasting and eating dogs because the food has run out. All of which should be, in this context, either much broader than it is (I’d love to see how Terry Gilliam would adapt Ballard’s book) or much more intimate. So this is where the film itself collapses, opting to let the most important moments of the mayhem swoop by in too-quick montages that favor visual humor — though even this is only very mildly wry — over any appreciation of how anyone caught up in the disaster is experiencing it on a personal level.
The cast is uniformly excellent, as their names alone promise, but the most captivating thing about High-Rise is production designer Mark Tildesley’s mounting of a 1970s idea of the near future, perhaps hovering in a now-alternate 1990s. (His previous work includes, among many other films, Code 46 and Trance, which share similarly startling contradictory visions of illusory freedom and happiness.) But the leaden literal-mindedness of the story playing out within Tildesley’s setting drags it down. The characters are grounded enough that we never understand, for instance, why no one simply leaves the building to go buy food and other necessities. The world outside still exists — Robert still goes to work! — but the necessary sense of true isolation of this community never materializes, nor do any amplified expressions of social entitlement or privileged disregard. It’s all played from a far too chilly middle ground. Maybe Wheatley (Doctor Who, Sightseers) thought that was an appropriately caustic pitch for the material. If so, it’s a huge disappointment that he doesn’t make it work.
viewed during the 59th BFI London Film Festival