Review by Lauryn Angel
Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise is a marvelous adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name, about an upscale apartment building that is also a social experiment on the part of its architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). The building is a microcosm of social hierarchy – Royal, as a patriarchal figure and, as his name suggests, king of the building, occupies the penthouse level, and the social classes decline as the floor number descends. The lower floors are mostly occupied by families, represented by Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss), who steadfastly believes their lives would be better if they lived on a higher floor. In the middle is the professional class, represented by Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston).
Liang is the character the audience is invited to view as the hero. The film begins as he moves into the high-rise, so we learn about the environment as he navigates his new environment, exploring the gym, pool, and market. He is labelled “an excellent specimen” by his upstairs neighbor, Charlotte (Sienna Miller). The high-rise life is one of constant partying, as Laing attends one party after another, trying to find his place in the building. While he develops a friendship of sorts with Royal, he is firmly reminded to keep to his place in the middle.
The tone of the film is ominous from the beginning, and there are several indications of dissatisfaction among the ranks in the various opening montages. As well, there are several allusions to the French Revolution throughout the film, including a party in the penthouse with attendees in 18th-Century fancy dress while the people on the lower levels eat birthday cake (a sideways reference to “Let them eat cake,” perhaps?). The tensions come to a head when the building experiences power outages, and those on the lower levels, led by Wilder, demand their equal share of the amenities. The building descends into chaos, but the decadence continues, supplemented with riots, suicide, and murder. The metaphor with the French Revolution ultimately fails as entropy settles in.
High-Rise is beautifully rendered. The exterior shots of the building – usually from below, with a tumultuous orange sky as a backdrop – accompanied by Clint Mansell’s swirling score set the ominous tone of the film. Music is put to good particularly good use here. When Laing attends the penthouse party, a string quartet plays a classical arrangement of ABBA’s “SOS,” which is amusing until the song is revisited later in the film with an unsettling cover of the same song by Portishead, set to a montage of violent behavior of the high-rise’s occupants. On top of this, the cast delivers stellar performances: Hiddleston as a man trying to maintain order while the world falls apart; Irons as a ruler trying to maintain his control; Evans as a man driven to madness by his sense of injustice. Moss, Miller, Sienna Guillory (who plays the resident film star) and Keely Hawes (who plays Ann Royal) aren’t given quite as much to do as their male counterparts, sadly, but they more than hold their own.
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