Film Review: High-Rise

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 4.18.19 pmImage via Film4

Director: Ben Wheatley

Screenwriters: Amy Jump, Benjamin Taylor

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Jeremy Irons, Elisabeth Moss

“In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom”. This quote from the J.G. Ballard novel, Running Wild (1988), is a common theme across the works of the author, prominently displaying itself in High-Rise, the 2015 film adaption of Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name.

The film follows Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) and the fellow residents of a new high rise residential development on the outskirts of London, and the events that lead to the total downfall of any semblance of order and the eruption of chaos that follows. The story is a simple one when stripped back to the core, which allows for it to be told through a frenetic series of events in an at times seemingly incoherent sequence, whilst still presenting the narrative to the viewer in a coherent manner. The story is, after all, about the fragility of humanity and what little it takes for a society to descend into a tribal mentality, removing the need for any overt exposition and appealing directly to the base human instincts of the viewer.

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 4.21.26 pmImage via Film4

The film presents Laing as a character torn between dualities. He searches for anonymity within the high rise, refraining from unpacking his things, perhaps to keep closed a past he is running from (young Toby only asks the tough questions), yet also wastes no time connecting to Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a documentary film-maker from the lower floors and his wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss), Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) in the apartment above his own, as well as the architect of the development who resides in the top floor penthouse, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), quickly covering all his bases. All the residents are middle class professionals, yet the high rise is divided into lower, middle and upper floors, one of many allusions to the political circumstances of the time, and a divide which only grows stronger as the chaos unfolds.

Laing’s internal division also grows stronger, yearning for a freedom outside the confines of the high rise, painting the walls of his 25th floor apartment to match the particularly depressing grey sky outside, desperate to achieve a sense of freedom to the point of fighting over the last remaining paint can with another resident. Yet he also craves the environment that the residents have created for themselves, becoming more disinterested in his life outside the apartment, rushing back into the fray to rejoin the chaos as others are leaving. Hiddleston’s performance carries an appropriate calmness, allowing the events to unfold around him as he goes along for the ride, as inhibitions break down within, much as the systems of the high rise itself.

The distinctly brutalist architectural style of the towers adds to the confined and harsh environment within. The meticulously landscaped rooftop garden appears to be the only place of tranquillity within miles of the development as shown in one of the many well composed shots throughout the film, teetering over the edge of the roof juxtaposing the softness of the greenery with the vast concrete below.

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 4.21.13 pmImage via Film4

The main difficulty the film faces is in looking towards a future which has come and gone, offered by a novel written 40 years prior to the release of the film. Presenting the motivation of characters originally written with political undertones so rooted in their time could have proven a challenge, yet the driving theme of freedom is universal and unrestricted by time. The characters refuse to leave the high rise despite no physical barrier keeping them in place, because the freedom to choose your own path is worth the price of staying.

The film ends as it began, coming full circle as the events of the three months in which the story takes place bring us to Laing’s and the tower’s current state. Witnessing how far things can fall in such a short amount of time through Laing’s descent into insanity mirroring the high rise’s descent into chaos, the underlying theme of the fragility of humanity and its social constructs is driven home as Laing writes indecipherable pages of notes and speaks in the third person to the building, finally finding a freedom in his madness.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

*Bonus points for the use of Portishead’s cover of ABBA’s 1975 hit “SOS” with its ominously melancholy sound and appropriately desperate lyrics.

– Jared Wasilewski

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