ALONG with the likes of William S Burrough’s Naked Lunch and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, JG Ballard’s 1975 satirical dystopian novel High-Rise was considered positively unfilmable.
But after many unsuccessful attempts over the years, the singular directorial voice of Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Sightseers) –armed with wife Amy Jump’s adapted screenplay has brought the confined and crazed world to life on screen.
The film centres on Dr Robert Laing (a particularly suave Tom Hiddleston) who is seduced into living in a deluxe high-rise apartment building designed by enigmatic architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) in which the higher you go, the more privileged the residents.
The people on the bottom live in the equivalent of council estate conditions, while the well-off enjoy luxury penthouse living up above. This includes Charlotte (Sienna Miller), Laing’s alluring neighbour who lives comfortably with her son on the 25th floor, and Richard and Helen (Luke Evens and Elisabeth Moss), a couple struggling to get by many floors below.
As pressures mount over the floor-by-floor class distinctions including the pertinent question of why everyone isn’t getting their fair share of the power – a steadily increasing state of madness takes grip of the eclectic set of residents until things get really out of control.
It’s basically a study of a society in microcosm, with a pressure cooker plot progressively boiling with chaotic eruption ever on the horizon. Things finally kick into overdrive, resulting in everything from looting of the on-site supermarket to eating dogs as a result of the food supply running dry.
While this turning point gives Wheatley the chance to really show off his capability as a director of visually distinct cinema – his use of space and framing within the pristinely designed apartments and residential meeting places is particularly effective – this opening of the floodgates feels altogether clunky and rushed.
It’s certainly a neat idea in principle – or, indeed, in the original novel to not offer up any sort of solid explanation for why exactly the people lose all grip on morals, manners and, seemingly, sanity.
But it nonetheless feels dramatically unsatisfying here with the film, ironically, losing a lot of its staying power once things go from a downward spiral to completely without restraint.
Its sense of mental isolation is keenly observed but the same can’t be said for the physical; why, for example, can’t people just leave to go and get more supplies? They’re not trapped – as evidenced by Dr Laing still regularly going to work – except perhaps by the principle that this place should forever remain their rightful domicile.
We’re also subjected to an increasingly muddled approach to the storytelling, flitting between what this character and that character are getting up to so that it feels frustratingly scattershot rather than intentionally frenzied. It’s this sense of confusion and scrambled plotting that stops it completely functioning from top to bottom as a piece of effective cinema.
High-Rise is a confounding beast of a film, with so much at play outright that it overwhelms just as much as it entices – like a mouth sore that would heal if only you could stop tonguing it. But though it may not entirely hang together, there’s still much to intrigue and chew over in this enclosed world of stylised madness.