Over the past few weeks, Ben Wheatley has been doing a tour around the UK doing early screenings of High Rise with a q&a afterwards. Yesterday, I was lucky enough to go to the screening at the Electric in Birmingham. Now Wheatley is fast becoming one of my favourite directors. I’ve not always been a fan of his films (A Field in England didn’t really do much for me) but he’s got one of the most unique visual styles of any director working today and when he’s on point he makes masterpieces like Sightseers and Kill List. I’ve been interested to see what Wheatley would do with a larger budget and with High Rise we see it, and it’s one of the most insane films that will be released this year.The film follows Dr Robert Laing, who has just moved in to a luxury high rise building during the late 1970s. After he moves in though, he discovers the rigid class structure in the building, the rich having control of the higher floors, the poor being relegated to the bottom of the building, where there are frequent power failures. Over time, society in the high rise starts to collapse, accelerated by the class divisions, along with the increasing lack of power and food, until it becomes a society fuelled by sex, alcohol and violence. There are a number of great themes at play in the film, one of the most important being the damage caused by isolationism. Even before society collapses, we see how the high rise encourages people to stay inside, all facilities for modern life being included in the building and as society collapses, the way that society has bred itself to ignore the outside encourages people to avoid work, those who do go to work being ostracised. This is compounded by little interest by the state in the functions of the building, only 1 police officer is seen throughout the film. This isolationism is also the main reason why the film could not take place in the modern era of social media. By making it a period piece, the isolation of the building is put into greater contrast with the rest of society. This is matched by the equally important theme of the damage caused by class warfare on both sides, this fracturing of society based on class created the perfect breeding grounds for the violence in the film, especially after the food supplies run out, with war parties being formed to raid the supermarket to gather the last vestiges of food. The film does blame the rich for being the catalyst for the problems though as their extravagance, overt use of electricity, blocking off of communal facilities for their own means and the derision towards those on lower floors created the perfect grounds for anger to fester, with the failure of power being the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Going through these themes makes the film seem really dry and dark, but it’s actually one of the funniest dark comedies released this year. The collapse of society in the building is represented by wilder and more debauched parties those on every floor throw, the only liquid available for most people being alcohol. The insanity that develops as the film goes on is hilarious, especially in relation to the higher floors (the lower floors collapse is presented more horrifically) and the food situation of the building, some great darkly comedic images coming out of it.
The acting in the film is excellent across the board. Tom Hiddleston is brilliant as Laing. His overall demeanour brings across the reclusive aspects of the character, but also a darker side to him, one that would allow him to thrive as society in the high rise collapses and makes him quite a bit of a monster as the film progresses. He also brings across the outsider aspect of the character brilliantly, never quite fitting into any aspect of society in the building whilst also fitting into all of them, he makes Laing a very compelling character, plus it allows Hiddleston to use his skills as a physical performer, both with and without clothes. Luke Evans meanwhile is completely wild and energetic as Wilder, in a good way. It’s clear he does feel the injustice of the building and it is tearing him apart, but the way he responds to it, resorting to violence and deliberately raking up the tensions for a documentary he wants to film, go way too far, with there being a clear division between him and his wife. Speaking of whom, Elisabeth Moss as Helen Wilder is equally great, showing the psychological damage that the high rise can cause and some elements of class resentment but in a more subtle way, clearly developing some form of psychosis as the film develops, making it so when she does dive into the debauchery of the building, it’s fairly heartbreaking. Jeremy Irons meanwhile adds great depth to Royal, the architect of the building. It’s clear he wants the building to be completely self contained, being obsessed with making it perfect and wanting the building to avoid devolving into class war at the start, but he also has a clear lack of respect for others in the building outside of himself and, as the film goes on, it feels like the dystopia that develops in the building is sort of what he wants. You also get some great comedic performances from Keeley Hawes as Ann Royal, who is more active in stirring up the class tensions and is using the penthouse floor to recreate the style of the country house, Sienna Guillroy as Ann Sheridan, an actress who probably feels more comfortable in the dystopia as it allows her a sense of freedom that normal society wouldn’t allow, Reece Shearsmith as Steele who’s more uptight nature is a great source of comic relief as society collapses, along with brilliant work by James Purefoy and Augustus Prew which I don’t want to spoil here. The only weak link in the cast for me was Sienna Miller. It felt like her character was meant to be in the film more and have a more defined role both before and after society collapses and while Miller is good in the part and works well off Hiddleston and Evans, it felt like her character was one of the casualties in editing the film.
On a technical level, this is easily the best looking film Wheatley has made. The design of the high rise itself is incredible, the recreation of 70s architecture, along with the design to make it look like a hand, being brilliantly done, it’s something you need to see for yourself. The period detail extends through every aspect of the film, from the technology to the clothes to the design of all the goods in the supermarket, everything in the film screams 70s, making the film feel a lot more believable. Wheatley’s direction is on top form here, his kaleidoscopic style getting some great use during the second half of the film, along with some incredible use of slow motion, as society is collapsing. The music in the film is also a highlight, in particular the use of ABBA’s SOS in parties before the collapse (in a brilliant arrangement by Clint Mansell) and as a great counterpoint for the depravity on screen in the latter portion of the film.
Overall, High Rise is a completely insane, visually stunning film that I’ve come to expect from Ben Wheatley. Amy Jump’s screenplay is able to balance out the horrific and the comedic whilst ensuring the relevance of the story, with the 70s setting reinforcing it’s relevance (especially, as Wheatley said during the q&a, in the wake of the Jimmy Saville revelations), the acting is stellar throughout and Wheatley’s direction creates some amazing imagery (aided by incredible production design) that will not leave your head anytime soon after watching. Considering that this was still a relatively low budget film (although high for a Ben Wheatley film), I can’t wait to see what will happen when Wheatley gets even more toys to play with, based on the strength of this it’ll be an amazing sight to behold.
My Rating: 4.5/5
By the way, if you ever get the opportunity to go to a q&a session with Ben Wheatley, take the opportunity, he’s a great presence to be around, hilariously self deprecating and his passion for what he does is infectious. Plus, there’s the potential to get free t-shirts and badges, which is always a plus.