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HIGH-RISE (UK 2015) ***
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elizabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Sienna Guillory
Review by Gilbert Seah
HIGH-RISE is a much anticipated film among cineastes. The rights for J.G. Ballard’s (best known for his novel CRASH directed by David Cronenberg) book had been snapped up by producer Jeremy Thomas for decades and a number of directors were slated to make the film, among them Nicholas Roeg. But director Ben Wheatley, British new film enfant terrible snatched the prize after directing two art-house low budget hits A FIELD IN ENGLAND and THE SIGHT-SEERS. Ballard’s book on a dystopian society set up in a 1970’s tower block (film shot in Northern Ireland) where the higher classes occupy the higher floors with better privileges such as parking spots and facilities usage like the summing pool, is a difficult one. The social strata eventually breaks down following a string of building malfunctions.
HIGH-RISE opens with a Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) at his high rise building flat apparently roasting and eating a dog’s leg on the balcony. The film flashes back three months earlier to the events that led to this odd state.
Dr. Lang arrives and occupies in the centre section of the building – reason not given. He meets the building’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) who lives in the penthouse and various other occupants including Charlotte, Royal’s aide (Sienna Miller) and a nasty documentary-maker (Luke Evans) who ends up creating a lot of trouble including wanting to take down Royal. Wheatley’s film charts the downfall of order and the rise of anarchy in the building. Finally, the residents stay in and do not venture out to work, waging wars with each other. Wheatley has directed films with similar themes. THE SIGHTSEERS sees the volatile and violent breakdown of the relationship of a new couple while A FIELD IN ENGLAND featured a battlefield among warring factions.
The Korean film SNOWPIERCER two years back featured a similar premise. The last inhabitants on Earth are stuck on a train travelling around the Earth forever with the lower working classes at the back of the train and the richest at the front. The workers revoke and move up the front of the train.
But HIGH-RISE fails to engage the audience despite the Ballard’s difficult novel. It should be noted that Ballard used to hang around with William Burroughs whose NAKED LUNCH with Ballard’s own CRASH ended up as one of the most unlikeable/difficult films ever made. Given that Amy Jump’s script and Wheatley’s direction make little attempt in tying to make their film more coherent or engaging. When Dr. Laing first meets Chartlotte, her comment is on Laing’s body being almost a perfect specimen implying a detachment of human nature.
The rise of the building’s anarchy is also not well orchestrated. Wheatley appears more interested in the film’s sets and images than anything else. To the film’s credit, the production values look great with the film having a past future feel and a look like the old 70’s futuristic films like Joseph Losey’s MODESTY BLAISE. Whereas films like SNOWPIERCER relied on action to grab the audience’s attention, HIGH-RISE consists of a whole lot of cinematic/dramatic set-ups with too much left to the audience to decipher as to what is happening.
Hiddleston delivers a good nuanced performance appearing out of place and finally connecting with the anarchy just as his confident behaviour at the start of the film breaks down to insecurity. Still Wheatley’s film is an intriguing one and one that shows his ability to set his imprint on a story, whether it be successful or not.
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