Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller
Dr Robert Laing (Hiddleston) moves into what he believes is a state-of-the-art high-rise tower block. However, as he gets to know the residents he learns of a huge class divide and power struggle between the various floors. As tensions rise between the various groups, Laing finds himself involved in the total anarchy that breaks out.
British director Ben Wheatley has certainly established himself on ‘the director to watch list’ ever since the acclaimed (but in my view very overrated Kill List), and now judging by the film’s marketing he is now in the ‘acclaimed’ category. Well, his current filmography certainly shows an eclectic mix of films that have often showed that as a director he does have a great eye, and High-Rise is indeed his best work yet from a visual perspective.
From start to finish High-Rise is a sumptuous visual feast for the eyes and proof that having a bigger budget to play with has not diluted his vision as a director, but has only allowed him to be bolder and more creative (the ‘acclaimed’ tag probably meaning the studio will allow him to go that little bit further). High-Rise most certainly deserves to be seen on the big screen as it is an incredibly cinematic experience thanks to Wheatley’s camerawork and editing, despite the fact the entire narrative takes place in a confined and often claustrophobic setting.
Of course every film is a collaboration with the director being essentially the project manager, and Wheatley’s stylistic vision could have never have been delivered so well if it were not for the team he has behind him. The set design in particular is exceptional; it is never specifically mentioned as to what decade the film is set, but the cars, clothes and haircuts scream the 1970s, and this sense of time and place is captured perfectly. Likewise Laurie Rose’s cinematography and Clint Mansell’s outstanding score are note-perfect, and anarchy had never felt quite so visually stunning.
However, I have often accused Wheatley’s films of being style over substance, and despite High-Rise being his first one based on a novel, it is still just as vacuous as Wheatley’s previous films. Having not read J. G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, I cannot comment on whether that itself had substance, but when watching High-Rise it does feel that the film is 40 years too late to have perhaps the desired impact that it intends to. The themes and ideas at the centre of its narrative have been seen so many times by any 2016 audience as most of us studied Lord of the Flies at school and have seen countless films telling us that humans are still on the verge of becoming primal savages once again. The undeniable fact is that beneath all the countless slow-mos and montages, High-Rise ultimately brings nothing new to this notion and concept that it is depicting. It is certainly great to watch while on screen, but as soon as the credits role it is instantly forgettable, despite some less than subtle messages that clearly show the film’s political leanings. These do feel patronising and do almost contradict the film’s style as they jarringly stick out and feel like they are there to add substance and provoke thought, but really don’t. My friend who I saw the film with summed it up perfectly when he said to me “the most memorable thing about High-Rise is how unmemorable it actually is.”
Wheatley has managed to assemble what on paper is a great cast; Tom Hiddleston is very much the man of the moment, and though he is essentially the protagonist, he gets equal screen time with the rest of the characters. Despite the fact that Hiddleston is obviously a very talented actor he does feel miscast and is the film’s other key weak point. He is the new resident and so becomes the protagonist, but he is impossible to relate to (this may be more the fault of the script), but Hiddleston lacks the edge, intensity or presence to convince in the way he should. Hiddleston is continuously upstaged and out acted by Luke Evans, who does bring a genuine sense of intensity and intrigue to his character, and indeed emerges as the only memorable character. The rest of the cast, despite some great performances (Reese Shearsmith a particular standout) all just feel like clichéd, lazy and forgettable caricatures that are all at the mercy of Wheatley’s editing software.
Thanks partly to the forgettable characters, High-Rise is also at times an effort to watch, and the lack of any real substance does not justify the effort. At one minute shy of two hours, with more rigid discipline it could easily be twenty minutes shorter, and the lengthy running time only emphasises the episodic nature of the narrative and does make the film feel self-indulgent, only enhancing its occasional laboriousness. I still maintain that Sightseers is Wheatley’s best film, and the reason being that though it contains just as much style over substance as the others, it is at least a comedy that is genuinely funny, and so is not as much of a wasted effort as his other films. When reviewing A Field In England I stated that Wheatley needs better scripts from his regular screenwriter Amy Jump if he is to ever make a truly great film, and now that I have seen him direct an adapted screenplay by her, my thoughts have not changed.
Once again Ben Wheatley gives us an abundance of style but forgets to include any real substance; High-Rise is a stunning and highly cinematic experience, but its lack of discipline and the fact it only has very basic and unoriginal themes at its narrative core renders it highly forgettable and at times unnecessarily hard work.