“For all its inconveniences, Laing was satisfied with life in the high-rise.” So begins Ben Wheatley’s visually penetrating adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, with a head inside a television set and Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) spit-roasting a German Shepherd. Using the oppressive Mid-Century brutualist architecture of the titular towers, and a thoroughly 1970s setting and aesthetic, Laing moves into a massive 40-story building designed by Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Supposedly an ideal space, with everything from a supermarket to a primary school in the megastructure, residents begin to lose interest in the outside world, until the system begins to fail and the delicate class divisions come tumbling down into anarchic violence.
Like Snowpiercer, or the 1987 Doctor Who episode Paradise Towers (also loosely based on Ballard’s novel), it’s an allegorical tale of how the physical environment of modernity can impact on the psyche of the populace. “It takes a certain determination to row against the tide,” a waiter reminds Laing as he traverses the class divides, literally separated by floors in the case of HIGH-RISE. Hiddleston comes into the film as a detached creature already, his stiff upper-lip Britishness contrasting with his bemused observations of the rich. His descent into madness is so subtle that it seems perfectly natural, as though there is no other rational response than to go mad. Yet all the cast are top-notch in this, especially the chief “lower level” agitant Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), who gives a primal turn as he embraces the most basic instincts of survival. Sienna Miller feels like something more calculated in the way she plays off the two camps with her own secrets. It’s still the omnipresent hum of the tower, eerily brought to life by Clint Mansell’s score and a disturbing Portishead cover of ABBA’s “SOS,” that figuratively and literally dominates the landscape against the unnaturally orange sky. Unsurprisingly, it’s Margaret Thatcher’s voice that echoes over the final moments, affirming that capitalism is the only economic system in the world, while Laing waits for the tower’s twin to suffer the fate of his. As global politics increasingly divide rich and poor, and these structures are now commonplace, Ballard’s tale has even more weight than it did forty years ago.
2015 | UK | DIR: Ben Wheatley | WRITER: Amy Jump | CAST: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss | DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission Films (AUS) | RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes | RATING:★★★★ (8/10)