Movie review: Dark satire climbs the walls and stairwells of ‘High-Rise’
The 1975 J.G. Ballard novel “High-Rise” finally makes it to the screen, even though the film rights to it were purchased right around the time it was published. It’s likely that fans of that book, and of Ballard in general, will also be fans of the film, as it sticks pretty close to the source material. But people watching this without any knowledge of what’s coming might be in for an uncomfortable couple of hours.
Yet that shouldn’t be a problem for those viewers who can recognize dark satire when it’s spooling out in front of them. This movie is supposed to make you anxious and a little worried about a future that could be right around the corner.
Even though the huge, sleek high-rise building of the title looks like something that would be found if you pushed the “forward” button on your time machine, no dates are mentioned, and it’s probably set in the 1970s, just like the book. There isn’t a cell phone to be seen.
That building is one of three plopped down on a stark British landscape, but the only one that’s been finished, and the one into which Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves after suffering some family tragedy and wanting to start over.
He’s a neat, orderly man who dresses nattily when he’s not enjoying some nude sunbathing out on his balcony, which is where his upstairs neighbor Charlotte (Sienna Miller) first notices him and yells down a salacious hello. What Laing doesn’t know is she has company up there, the married documentary filmmaker Wilder (Luke Evans), who’s fooling around on his very pregnant wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss).
There are lots of people to meet here, and as its story of class warfare and the dissolution of society begins to unfold, the filmmakers choose the route of letting us see them, but not letting us get to know them. Take, for instance, Mr. Royal (Jeremy Irons) AKA The Architect, the man in the penthouse who considers himself in charge of the building (as well as, it appears, the two unfinished buildings). Little tidbits about him are revealed — he likes to dress in white, he works in an office that’s painted white, he’s having some trouble with his wife, he’s not at all happy when things start to go wrong with “my building.”
The film is as much about the 40-story building as about its inhabitants. The class difference business is reflected in where everyone lives: The wealthier folks live higher up, the less fortunate lower down (Dr. Laing is on 25.). But everything is equal when it comes to the idea that you never have to leave the place. There’s a supermarket on 15, and a health spa, with pool, on 30. If you’re Mr. Royal, and are running the place, you have access to your rooftop lawn, flowers, sheep, and horse.
There are also parties for the wealthy, where people drink and smoke cigarettes and carry on with affairs. The less well off appear content with having their own parties in the corridors.
But don’t forget those things that go wrong. There are hints that the world outside the building is going to hell — a radio reports on gale-force winds in London — but it’s the microcosm of society on the inside that grabs our attention.
There are strange noises, which Royal glibly explains away as the building “still settling.” But there are also power outages, garbage is piling up, and the always well-stocked supermarket is running out of everything, with no replenishments in sight. Shoppers are not happy about this. In fact, their reactions tend to lean toward aggression.
Hiddleston has the meaty lead role here as Laing, but he’s surrounded by a terrific ensemble of vibrant, bigger-than-life characters, the most fascinating of which is Evans’ Wilder, a drunken brute of a man with a short temper. Amidst the violent emotional and physical outbursts by many of the tenants, there are also moments of quiet philosophical talk, along with a couple of offbeat renditions of ABBA’s “S.O.S.”
It all leads up to an unsettling ending, after which talk of things eventually to return to normalcy is floated. Yeah, right.
— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written by Amy Jump; directed by Ben Wheatley
With Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elizabeth Moss