Please note, this review of High Rise was previously published in October 2015 as part of our London Film Festival coverage.
There are a few simple rules for living well: get on with your neighbours, make the best of your menial job, don’t make waves, don’t get any ideas above your station.
As soon as you disobey those rules and try to climb out of the miserable social class you were born into, you’ll be found out immediately. They’ll laugh at you, spit at you, you’ll be stripped naked (literally and figuratively) and punished for your transgressions.
Why such a harsh moral code? Because the classes above realise if they let too many of us into their rarefied world, it won’t be long till anarchy reigns, and those who survive will be left alone, nameless and eating a roasted Alsatian on the balcony of our feculent apartments.
No more damning indictment of this sobering truth exists than within JG Ballad’s 1975 novel High Rise, newly adapted by director Ben Wheatley and writer/editor Amy Jump, who together in Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England have created some of the most rule-breaking cinema in the last few years. High Rise is no exception.
The grand tower-block at the heart of the film offers every aspirational convenience known to a 70s Britain on the cusp of Thatcher rule. A swimming pool, gymnasium, a school, a supermarket. Why would you ever leave such a perfect self-contained paradise? Dr Robert Laing (a simmeringly tense yet undeniably charming Tom Hiddleston) is its latest tenant, a perfect example of the middle class ideal. A polite, reasonably successful white male who will happily adapt to any situation rather than improve the things going wrong around him. After making love to the heavily pregnant Helen (Mad Men‘s terrific Elisabeth Moss) she describes him as the “building’s greatest amenity”. Laing is simply a conduit between the classes during the inevitable breakdown of the tower.
Things fall apart so quickly as to go by almost unnoticed. A fluctuation in power cuts off the lower floors, and none of the upper floor residents care. Why should they? They’re far too busy with their wildly hedonistic parties, (which are merely designed to antagonise non-attendees) to realise the building has terminal maintenance problems. Hilariously reinforcing this idle privilege is the fact that nobody in the upper echelon wants to drive to work for fear of losing a highly desired parking space nearest the building. Even though this means having their cars destroyed by falling debris.
In a matter of days, chaos descends across every floor and a tribal mentality takes over. Residents begin hunting in packs, delivering random violence and punishing other floors by jamming the waste disposal shoots and elevators. Despite all of this everybody seems to embrace their newfound degeneration, nobody wants to leave even though they are perfectly free to do so.
Wheatley’s version of events is perhaps mercifully more humorous than within the novel itself. In fact some of the best moments of High Rise do not come from Ballad at all, they belong to Amy Jump. She fleshes out the dialogue with much more humour and irony than the starkly aloof conversations originally penned by Ballad. The playfulness is ramped up (particularly the brief exchange between Laing and a checkout girl that leads to her later fluency in French, and Laing’s relationship with the young boy Toby) and perhaps some of the horror is blunted by the sheer ridiculous nature of the residents’ behaviour. Ballad never went quite as far as French Regency themed parties or riding a white horse through an apartment, he preferred the use of shock brutality to say what he needed to say about conformity and the excesses of the bourgeoisie. Wheatley and Jump however allow the exuberance of the performances, the wilfully non-conformist pacing and the situation’s inherent absurdity to convey the dangers of unchecked debauchery.
High Rise is also a beautifully designed film, as it should be. The brutalist architecture of the building is masterful and offsets the more luxuriant trappings of the interior. There’s a wonderful moment where Laing caresses the stark, concrete pillar in his apartment, gently fingering the crevice as if it were… well… yeah. Setting the film in the 70s is also a no-brainer, the book was published in 1975 and certainly an audience would question why none of the behaviour in the tower is being monitored by the outside world as it would be today. Plus we get to see the cast looking utterly brilliant in their brown corduroy trousers, moustaches and play-suits.
The art direction alone justifies seeing High Rise on the big screen. There are many heavily fetishised shots of the tower, particularly when it dominates the frame but not so much that you can’t peek around the edges at the surrounding wasteland, where further blocks will be constructed. The grandest moment shows the blank eyes of a suicide victim staring up at the monolithic tower-block, equally dead inside. You can almost hear 2001: a Space Odyssey’s chorus of piercing wails in the background.
High Rise’s greatest triumphs are within the elegantly scored and edited montages. Clint Mansell delivers his best soundtrack here, his score is grandly aspirational, despite the horrors being shown on screen. Amy Jump’s editing has a syncopated rhythm, following its own brilliant internal logic, offering teasing glimpses of the many stories taking place throughout the high rise. These sections do much of the narrative heavy-lifting, saving the need to get bogged-down in the precise reasons why this mayhem is taking place. All you need to know is that we as a society are on a knife-edge and if we have to go more than a few moments without electricity, food or water then we’ll inevitably try and slaughter a horse with a cheese knife.
And that’s as good a moral to end on as any other. 5/5