Writer: Amy Jump
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Luke Evans, James Purefoy, Elisabeth Moss, Keeley Hawes, Sienna Guillory, Peter Ferdinando
Running time: 112mins
The lowdown: Ben Wheatley’s first big screen outing since visiting A Field in England continues the visual and aural assault as he tackles J.G. Ballard’s 1975 cult novel. Tom Hiddleston is a doctor newly accepted into an exclusive high rise condo, who watches as the utopian dream degenerates into an orgy of violence, sex and murder. Despite retaining the 70s setting, meaty swipes at David Cameron’s Big Society Britain pack a punch in a smart, acidic end of days movie.
The full verdict: Producer Jeremy Thomas has spent decades trying to bring High Rise to the screen.
His wait for Wheatley was worth it. The director and regular screenwriter/wife Amy Jump bring Ballard’s jaundiced world of professional privilege, withering condescension and insouciant cruelty to the screen as a breathtaking sensory kaleidoscope.
Hiddleston’s Dr Robert Laing (presumably named after radical therapist RD Laing) is successful, educated and good looking, but struggles to grasp the rules within the rigid social structure of the imposing apartment block.
Living midway up the building, he’s halfway up the ladder, but gynaecologist Pangbourne (Purefoy) and TV exec Cosgrove (Ferdinando) rule the roost, along with the enigmatic architect (Irons) and his sneering wife (Hawes). Faded actress Jane (Guillory) walks the building fishing for autograph guppies, treating her animals as surrogate children.
On the lower floors the honeymoon period is brief. A welcome party thrown by social climber Charlotte (Miller) is an immediate hotbed of bitterness and malice barely concealed behind polite smiles.
An alliance of sorts is made with loose cannon documentarist Wilder (a fearsome Evans) and his perennially pregnant, chain-smoking wife (Moss).
When a children’s birthday party gatecrashes a poolside gathering it ignites class war, radically restructuring the high rise. For worse or better?
Despite the period setting and perfect recreation of phlegm-orange wallpaper and concrete coloured suits, High Rise is bang up to date. The clamber for exclusive postcodes, venal consumer one-upmanship and the futile search for the price of happiness all seem rather familiar.
High Rise may not be subtle (Irons’ architect is called Royal), but it’s the kind of angry, social cinema Britain used to be pretty good at turning out. Although Ken Loach was never this hallucinogenic.
An elitist 18th century French-themed fancy dress ball is just one sign the block is on the verge of revolution, while every power failure and piece of rotting fruit stinking up the 15th floor supermarket increases the pressure.
As visually experimental as A Field in England, but with a stronger story anchor, Wheatley employs a series of jaw-dropping Nic Roeg-like montages to depict the escalation from drunken good times to all-out anarchy. All set to Portishead’s portentous cover of Abba’s S.O.S and Clint Mansell’s driving score.
Keeping the audience off-balance, the film releases plot info piecemeal, the balance of power revealed through conversation fragments and fleeting visuals of the latest victim of the rush to a new order.
Hiddleston (here a dead ringer for Michael Fassbender, further adding to the unreality) makes a perfect Ballardian anti-hero; a reluctant, compromised guide through the chaos.
The surrounding cast are similarly note-perfect, gleefully chewing on outrageous dialogue. Irons, Evans and Purefoy rub shoulders with TV faces Reece Shearsmith and Dan Renton Skinner, while Moss, English accent and all, impresses as a rare emotional oasis.
Wheatley’s best work after the still astounding Kill List, time will tell if High Rise is as well-remembered as David Cronenberg’s unofficial 1975 adaptation, Shivers.
But, with a final radio broadcast a fitting punchline to what has gone before, this is impressive, hilarious, uncompromising filmmaking.