Acclaimed British director has once again brought his stylistic heft to bear in this adaptation of JG Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name, but beneath the striking visuals and unsettling tone, there’s frustratingly little of substance.
Tom Hiddleston is Dr. Robert Laing, the new occupant of a 25th floor flat in a striking high-rise building. The building’s lower floors are occupied by working class families, including the volatile Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss). As the elevator rises, so does the occupants’ wealth and social status, culminating with the architect himself, Anthony Royal, portrayed by a sneering Jeremy Irons (though when isn’t he sneering?)
With the building established as a microcosm of society, Wheatley proceeds to tear it down. Power outages on the lower floors set off bubbling class tension, and before long it’s all gone a bit post-apocalyptic: riots, rape and competitive partying.
Wheatley pulls this off with characteristic stylistic aplomb, the building slowly devolving into a dark echo of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil – completed by the most sinister use of Abba since Mamma Mia! It’s a unique, chaotic world, distinctively Wheatley, continually surprising and exceptionally violent.
Unfortunately, style alone can’t carry the film. Little is laid out explicitly, even in the extended section of the film before the community’s collapse, leaving those without a synopsis in mind going in likely to remain confused to the end. Social commentary is strictly of the bludgeon-you-round-the-head-with-it variety, while the script, by Wheatley’s wife and regular collaborator Amy Jump, struggles to marshall its sprawling cast.
The result is a disjointed, messy film, interrupted by too-infrequent moments of lunatic genius. The cast all do their best to keep up, turning in game performances that mostly live up to the madness growing around them. Evans in particular proves that he’s capable of far more than his blockbuster background might suggest, but others, such as Reece Shearsmith, are hardly given enough to screen time for audiences to remember them at all.
Wheatley has proven himself capable of striking visual and sonic achievement again and again, but too often these moments simply have too little structure to hang on. High-Rise is a frustrating failure then: fragmentary genius, lurching from moment to moment, never settling enough to tell a story, develop its characters or simply tie it all together.
Words by Dominic Preston
High-Rise screens at the BFI London Film Festival on the 9th and 11th October.