A film as divisive as it is dystopian, High Rise segregated critics following its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. While some critics revelled in director Ben Wheatley’s retro-futuristic revival of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, others recognised the film’s fundamental flaw: it is chaotically confusing. Ballard’s novel had been deemed “unfilmable”, and it seems with good reason, as Wheatley’s dark comedy, though stylistically slick and visually violent, fails to pack a punch.
What is arguably most disappointing about Wheatley’s adaptation is its promising opening which is regrettably where the film peaks. Referring to himself in the third person, Dr Laing played by the nation’s favourite candidate for Bond, Tom Hiddleston, introduces the audience to the intriguingly feral existence of tower-block life as he tucks into a barbecued dog’s leg. Once the film reverses back to three months previous as Laing moves into the high rise, the set-pieces really bring the tower-block to life, presenting the perversely perfect angles of the rooms and corridors. The high rise symbolizes a microcosm of hierarchically structured social strata and although the physical structure holds, its residents soon rebel. But as a sped-up montage sequence marks the inhabitants’ descent into chaos, the film too loses the plot.
Before the societal demise of the high rise commences, caricatured characters portrayed by some of Britain’s finest actors crunch through dialogue so forced and pointed that the film’s message lacks any sophisticated subtlety. Jeremy Irons is “the architect” Anthony Royal who, dressed in crisp white attire, is the vision of a creator-deity, and speaks as such describing his creation as “a crucible for change”. During a party scene, Laing voices how the high rise appeals to his desire to remain anonymous whilst also acting as “an investment in the future.” The exhaustive dialogue soon becomes unbearable, especially when Laing’s tenancy application is described as “Byronic”.
The film is slightly redeemed by being built on solid foundations of stunning set-pieces and production design. One particular highlight is a scene in which Laing finds himself stuck in a broken-down elevator walled with mirrors, highlighting the tension of the evasively endless nature of this stiflingly enclosed space. The film is laced with visual metaphors, the most striking of which involves Laing removing the skin from a decapitated head in a class demonstration. The removal of the face mask visualizes the film’s social message, that we all wear masks but cannot deny that underneath, we are all uniform in the crudeness of our anatomical make-up.
High Rise is visually exquisite but ultimately the film falls short of expectations. There is much to admire, but not to enjoy.