BFI London Film Festival: High-Rise

Directed by Ben Wheatley
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss and James Purefoy

by Joanna Orland

Taking on an adaptation of a J.G. Ballard novel is no easy feat. Known primarily for his dystopian portrayal of society, Ballard’s High-Rise is one of his more extreme takes on class division and societal breakdown.

Set in a dystopian 1970’s, residents of this particular high-rise living complex know their place. The floors represent the classes, the higher you live, the higher your social standing. High-Rise is a stylistic take on anarchy as the film explores how people in their places descend into brutalism in order to achieve their goals of social balance.

The high-rise is filled with many residents of different ilks, each a strong character in their own right, with performances immaculately honed. While Tom Hiddleston is perfectly cast as Dr. Robert Laing, the standout performance of High-Rise is Luke Evans as his neighbour Richard Wilder. Evans is merciless as the rabid resident documentary filmmaker who is out for social justice. In spite of playing a man who acts in a most savage way, Evans brings empathy to his performance, somehow getting Dr. Laing and even the audience on side. Wilder is pivotal in the events of the high-rise breakdown and Evans’ performance makes this film as beautiful and barbarous as it is.

The aesthetic of High-Rise fits perfectly with the concept, achieving a vivid 1970’s feel with strong dystopian undertones and a hint of modernity which alludes to the fact that this story is still relevant in today’s unbalanced society. The dark cinematography and visuals are heightened by the film’s score and soundtrack which innovatively uses Abba’s SOS through some interesting renditions.

As much as I am singing this film’s praises, it is not without its flaws. The film begins in the aftermath of the social breakdown as Dr. Robert Laing roams the destroyed corpse-filled building, tucking into a hearty meal of BBQed dog. The film then flashes back to three months previous as Laing moves into the high-rise and meets the residents. The descent into chaos begins to unfold nicely, but the key moments are portrayed in montage form, making pivotal points of this breakdown a non-event.

The other flaw of this film, which I personally do not regard as such, is its absolute alienation of a mainstream audience. A surefire cult hit, High-Rise will likely divide critics and repulse the mainstream. Ben Wheatley stays true to his directorial voice, expressing dark humour in situations that are primarily heinous. But, all is done with stylistic perfection and socio-political overtones that make this film feel more relevant than most cinema today.


Our High-Rise interviews, videos & photo gallery from the 59th BFI London Film Festival Gala.

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