High Rise (2015)
I was looking forward to this film. Directed by Ben Wheatley, it was to be the next in a row of successes for him, I was sure. I had greatly enjoyed the sinister ‘Kill List’, and delighted at the black comedy of ‘Sightseers’. This was British film-making too, with natural locations, and a very English feel. I looked at the pedigree of ‘High Rise’. From a novel by J.G. Ballard (‘Empire of The Sun’, and ‘Crash’) and boasting a great cast of British actors, including flavour of the month, Tom Hiddleston, as well as Jeremy Irons, Keeley Hawes, Sienna Miller, James Purefoy, and Bill Paterson.
The story is about a high-rise development, a vision of the architect, Anthony Royal. (Irons) He lives in the luxurious top-floor penthouse, which includes a rooftop garden, and even a horse for his wife (Hawes) to ride. The good-looking Doctor Laing (Hiddleston) arrives to take up residence there, and he is soon noticed by some of the attractive ladies resident in the tower. It becomes apparent that social status and wealth is represented by the floor that the person lives on. Those on the lower floors are mostly middle-class, and also mostly insufferable too. The higher the floor, the more privilged the resident, right up to Royal’s penthouse. This high rise is complete with everything necessary to establish a contained community. It has its own supermarket, swimming pool, and gymnasium. Other than when they go to work, the residents have no need to ever leave.
But Royal’s vision is flawed. There are problems with the power supply, resulting in frequent power blackouts, and lift failures. Rubbish remains uncollected, food spoils in the supermarket, and the inhabitants of the block have to resort to using candles and torches, as well as having to constantly walk up and down stairs to their apartments.
We have the usual scenarios of troubled families and individuals. Royal’s wife is neglected and unhappy, Hiddleston’s doctor is troubled by loss, and struggling at work. Many of the women are unusually promiscuous, and even Royal is finding it hard to cope with the increasing deterioration of his project. As conditions become increasingly worse, the residents revert to type. The rich tenants on the upper floors hold a series of increasingly debauched parties, eventually resembling some kind of alcohol-fuelled Roman orgy. There are attacks on some people, women are raped, and this group begins to take over most of the building, banning the poorer residents from parts of it, including the swimming pool.
The lower classes on the floors below eventually revolt, led by film-maker Richard Wilder, (Luke Evans) a man who resents those on the upper floors for their comfortable lifestyle. There is looting in the supermarket, as well as more violence doled out, as they take their revenge. There are no winners though, and we are left watching the surviving residents descend into madness.
I haven’t read the book, but I presume that this tower block, and the lives of its residents, is supposed to represent the failure of organised society. The book was set in the 1970s, and Wheatley stays true to this, with contemporary cars, clothing, hairstyles, and attitudes too. For me, that was one of the most irritating aspects. It would have been far more effective to update the time period, and to set it in the 21st century. Perhaps because they are playing in a period piece, many of the otherwise excellent actors revert to type too, with some wooden acting worthy of puppets, and delivery of their lines as if they are in some kind of spoof.
Much of the nudity, and occasional graphic sex, seems gratuitous to me. The same could be said for the violence, though that is no worse than you might see on TV. Most of the cast members are wasted playing caricature roles, and other than Irons and Hiddleston, none are really given enough screen time to display their talents. The flaws in the story are obvious of course, so presumably intentional. Why does nobody just leave the block and go to the local shops when the food spoils in their supermarket? Why are the police never called to investigate the violent attacks? Why doesn’t anyone think to inform the electricity company that they have no power? Of course, if all that had happened, there would be no drama, and no story.
We are led to conclude that the building itself has taken control of its residents, altering their personalities, and returning them to savagery. The building represents society, and the way it stopped caring about the poor and the weak. I didn’t buy into that, but as I said, I haven’t read the book. What I saw was an often clumsy delivery, embarrassing acting at times, and some nasty and unnecessary sex acts and violence. It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know, and it failed to entertain me. But don’t take my word for it. Many critics raved about this film, and continue to do so.
For further reading, check out this excellent article from Nandia Foteini Vlachou. She sums up this film in a very academic and interesting way. Here is a link.