Film review: High Rise

David Gritten / 18 March 2016

Saga film critic David Gritten reviews High-Rise, about a sinister futuristic 1970s tower block.

There’s no question that British director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Down Terrace) has taken a bold, ambitious leap in adapting J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise for the big screen.

The book was an allegory about class divisions in Britain in that era, and Wheatley, together with his partner and screenwriter Amy Jump, has responded with a stylish looking piece of film-making. Whether it works satisfactorily is another matter completely.

Ballard’s novel was about a luxury apartment block in London, populated by various classes of people, housed according to their means. The rich took the higher floors, the working folks lived closer to the ground level. The building’s egotistical architect Anthony Royal (played by Jeremy Irons) occupies the palatial penthouse suite.

Into this rigid class structure steps Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a suave unmarried physiologist, looking for calm anonymity in his new quarters. Of course, he gets anything but; the disgruntled lowers-floors resident become increasingly antsy about the building, its faulty services and class-based disdain – and turn riotous. Eventually all semblance of order breaks down.

Hiddleston, a commanding presence as the film’s lead, watches all this with interest before deciding where his loyalties (or more specifically his instincts) lie.

Rather than updating Ballard’s story, Wheatley and Jump decided to keep it in the 70s. This gives them lots of opportunity for period clothes, styles and haircuts; unfortunately some of the acting feels like a parody of 1970s TV dramas – and sadly, not the cream of the crop.

The film-makers are also vague about the nature of the revolt within the building, and Laing’s detached calmness becomes as mystifying as the hysteria and chaos surrounding him.

All this amounts to an arresting film that will sharply divide opinion, but struggles to find much to say; for me, it’s an exasperating, puzzling piece of work.

One thing I’m sure of: it was a blunder on Wheatley’s part to add a recording of a speech by Margaret Thatcher near the end, hinting that she alone was responsible for all the preceding discontent. You don’t need to be a fan of the Iron Lady (for the record, I’m not) to regard this as an easy cop-out: a pantomime villain figure introduced as an explanation for what is, in Ballard’s novel, a complex assessment of human psychology.

I greatly look forward to Wheatley’s future efforts, but this one left me cold.

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