High-Rise: Still scratching my head

JG Ballard's chilling 1975 novel makes an awkward, yet stylistically sumptuous, transition to the big screen in the hands of Essex-born director Ben Wheatley.

Thursday, 17th March 2016, 8:00 pm
Updated Friday, 18th March 2016, 10:21 am
Still from High-Rise
Still from High-Rise

Set almost entirely within a 40-storey monolith brutally forged in concrete and steel, High-Rise charts the disintegration of society by pitting the lower, middle and upper classes against each other on their respective floors of the building.

Screenwriter Amy Jump retains the original setting, providing production designer Mark Tildesley with a blank canvas for cool and immaculate retro aesthetics that suggest a brave new world teetering on the brink of anarchy.

Explosions of violence spatter the lens as morality is cast aside, including one startling sequence of a man committing suicide by flinging himself off the building.

Sienna Miller

Costumes also perfectly evoke the swinging era, accompanied by a soundtrack composed by Clint Mansell (Black Swan, Requiem For A Dream) that teases out notes of simmering discord.

A tone of jet black humour is injected in the opening frames as Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) sits on the balcony of his flat, roasting the remains of a dog on a spit.

Man's best friend has become sizzling sustenance in a once pristine idyll that has degenerated into a battleground across the class divide.

The narrative rewinds three months to Robert's arrival on the 25th floor.

Sienna Miller

He sunbathes naked and catches the eye of single mother Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), who lives upstairs with her precocious son, Toby (Louis Suc).

She introduces Robert to some of the other residents, including officious busybody Nathan (Reece Shearsmith) and documentary filmmaker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), who neglects his heavily pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) to chase other women.

The medic is granted a private audience with the building's architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), who lives in the penthouse with his emotionally brittle wife, Ann (Keeley Hawes).

"I conceived this building as a crucible for change," Royal informs Robert, who takes advantage of the amenities including a fully stocked supermarket on floor 15 and a swimming pool on floor 30.

Power outages, which affect the lower floors, stoke resentment, eventually sparking civil war which claims the life of one beloved pet and a number of the residents.

High-Rise revels in the debauchery of the era, with orgiastic scenes of group sex and consumer greed.

Hiddleston is an engaging lead character, pandering to his fans with nudity and a dancing sequence that sees him frottering a gaggle of uniform air hostesses in lustrous slow-motion.

As a coherent narrative that sustains interest for two hours, Wheatley's film has some structural weaknesses and his impeccably tailored vision will infuriate and bemuse as many people as it intoxicates.

I'm firmly in the former camp, still scratching my head.