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British Fiilm Review: HIGH-RISE
Directed By Ben Wheatley
Genre: Action - Drama - Sci-Fi
After Kill List, Sightseers and A Field in England, Ben Wheatley’s take on JG Ballard’s dystopian futuristic fantasy has been anticipated since its no-show at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Its premise of the violently savage breakdown of society among the residents of a luxury high-rise tower block gives ample scope for his blackly comic vision.
Ballard’s novel was published in 1975, when high-rise blocks had yet to attract the cheap-concrete stigma and social condemnation that led to their demolition. Wheatley has kept the Seventies setting – the premise of a community trapped and erupting in a sealed environment could only work in an era without access to the outside world though mobile phones or internet. The production design – lighting and colour palette – is authentically ’70s, as are the hairstyles, facial hair, shag pile and flares. The eponymous tower block is monolithically brutal and set in a striking cityscape. The film looks spectacular, with shot after beautifully framed shot, at times visually referencing the seminal Seventies’ Clockwork Orange.
Tom Hiddleston is perfectly cast as the central character, neurologist Dr Robert Laing, a new arrival to the block. Initially urbane, he quickly catches the eye of his neighbour above – a flirtatious Sienna Miller. Residents’ social class or income is indicated by which floor they live on, with plebs or moderately well off on the lower floors, above them the rich and, at the top, the super-rich. Laing becomes literally upwardly mobile – from his 25th floor to the heights of the spectacular penthouse apartment when he’s invited to meet the block’s architect, the significantly named Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). For Royal, the block is a social experiment – a “crucible of change” – and he’s not interested in the human repercussions of his architectural experiment. On top of the building, he has a surreal lawned garden the size of a football pitch, where his wife (Keeley Hawes) amuses herself by riding a white horse like Marie Antoinette playing at being a shepherdess.
Richard Wilder (Luke Evans bursting with aggression) is the pugnacious documentary maker who leads incursions from the lower to the upper floors as the block’s services break down, the electricity fails and rubbish piles up. Elizabeth Moss is dowdy yet determined as his very pregnant wife, Helen. Wilder’s invasion sparks a class war. In retaliation, the upper-floor residents, who are partying dressed as aristocrats from the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette before the French Revolution with the same decadent lack of concern, descend to the lower floors to steal alcohol from the supermarket and fight back. There’s even an anarchic turf battle in the in-house swimming pool. But other than through fancy dress, the delineation of the classes isn’t clear so that the crucial breakdown of social structures – or perhaps the middle classes – is muddled.
Despite the high production values, cinematic brilliance and assembled star power of the cast, the nonstop loud parties turning into orgies becomes repetitive and seems overlong. Though the film starts arrestingly with Laing barbecuing a dog on his balcony and is told in flashback, as a result it feels that anarchy breaks out too quickly, before the characters have been established. The meaning of the fable is unsubtly hammered home by a heavy-handed script by Amy Jump, with a televised paean to capitalism by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, strangely tacked-on at the end. Unable to be updated, the message is still not quite a period piece, it still has some relevance in a contemporary Britain where luxury blocks are built with “affordable housing” entrances to segregate less-well-off tenants from wealthy homebuyers, so-called ‘poor doors’ at the back of the building, so the two social strata wouldn’t even have to meet.
HIGH RISE is in Cinemas 18 March 2016.
HIGH-RISE is released on DVD & Blu-Ray 18 July 2016.
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