After waiting months and months, I finally got to watch Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise on Friday night. Starring Tom Hiddleston, the film centers around life in a brand new 40 story high-rise building (the first of a planned 5) located on the outskirts of London. The newest resident of the high-rise is Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston), a doctor specializing in physiology, with no family (it’s mentioned that his sister has recently died). Moving into Apartment 2505, Laing is over halfway up in the social order that exists in the building. He’s much higher than the families that live on the lowest floors, but not quite high enough to be “good enough” for the rich snobs that inhabit the very highest floors. On the floor above him lives single mother Charlotte and her smarter-than-average son Tobey (very unusual, since “proper” families all live on the lower floors). Laing also makes the acquaintance of filmmaker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his heavily pregnant wife Helen. Floor 40, the penthouse, is inhabited by Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), the architect of the building, and his incredibly snobby wife (who has turned the roof into a fantastical country garden complete with a sheep, a horse and lots of trees).
This is one of my favorite images in the film
From the beginning, things seem “off” about the building (and Laing himself, if I’m honest). He openly admits at a party that he’s not very good at “this sort of thing” and seems to prefer keeping to himself. Though the building is brand new, nothing seems to work properly very long. The lights begin to flicker in the supermarket, and the food is seen to be going bad very quickly (with no one bothering to replace it). The trash disposal system doesn’t work very well either, with bags of refuse quickly piling up.
The building is meant to be a self-contained world in and of itself: there’s a school, a swimming pool, supermarket, squash court, every luxury imaginable. As mentioned before, the rich live on the upper floors, and residents become increasingly poorer the lower the floor becomes (even though everyone (according to Wilder) pays the same rates to stay in the building). Tensions are already thick between rich and poor when Laing moves in, and the disparity between the two is obvious as can be seen with two parties. The first, held in Charlotte’s apartment, is a relatively “normal” party with loud music, lots of drinking (implied sex) and casual “getting to know you” things. Then there’s a party given by Royal’s wife (Laing is invited by Royal) which turns out to be an 18th century costume party complete with a string quartet. Laing (who is unaware of it being a costume party and showing up in normal clothes) is unceremoniously thrown out and humiliated, especially by Munrow, a fellow colleague at the school they work at. Determined to get revenge, Laing lies and tells Munrow that a brain scan has revealed a mass in his brain (even though the scan is perfectly normal). Distraught, Munrow later commits suicide by jumping from the 39th floor and Laing is deeply guilt-ridden as a result.
To think it all started so well…
From that point on, things get….weird (that’s the only word I have for it). How things go from tension-filled normal to post-apocalyptic, I’m still not quite sure, but what I do know is it happens very quickly (the film only covers a three month period of time). Events devolve into a class war between the rich (huddled in the penthouse) and the poor (the lower floors of the building). Most of the women end up joining a “harem” in the penthouse. The utilities (power, water, etc.) eventually stop working (the swimming pool is briefly seen as a place to wash clothes), and a lot of residents wind up dead. Laing spends a great deal of time holed up inside his apartment, having apparently lost whatever remained of his sanity. I think that because he spends so much time locked away from the fighting, this is partially what allows him to move so freely between the “rebels” on the lower floors and the rich up top.
One big secret comes out towards the end of the film: Tobey is actually the son of Anthony Royal because of an affair he had with Charlotte some years back. Royal himself ends up shot dead by Richard Wilder (who is in turn killed by the “harem” of women). By the end of the film, a weird sort of “normal” has taken over what remains of the building. The women have established order from the penthouse and Laing is content to wait with Charlotte until the same thing happens to the next completed high-rise tower (in which event he will be happy to welcome them to the “new world.”)
I think I would have understood the film a little better if I’d been able to read the source novel beforehand (I’d still like to read it at some point). Even though parts of the film were weird and slightly confusing, that didn’t stop me from enjoying the story. I loved the 70s vibe of the film (the original novel is set in the 1970s) and the look of the building was just wonderful.
Everyone seemed well-cast, particularly Jeremy Irons as Anthony Royal. He’s so good at playing the “elder statesman” sort of role, and I enjoyed any scene he appeared in. Hiddleston….was good for the most part…but a few of the “awkward” scenes were almost too awkward, if that makes sense. I think Hiddleston might have been trying too hard at times. Luke Evans was believable as hot-headed Richard Wilder. His devolution into an enraged maniac is somewhat frightening (especially before a particular scene involving Charlotte) and a good example of what can happen to the “everyman” when they’re pushed too far.
Jeremy Irons is magnificent as always
I wish some of the characters had been more fleshed out. Many of the “rich” characters sort of blended together in my mind and I didn’t know much of anything about them (even the “famous actress” character became unrecognizable by the end of the film, I didn’t realize it was her until she said a line about giving her autograph). As for James Purefoy’s character, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t tell you his name, even though I know it was mentioned at least once.
These problems aside, I still enjoyed High-Rise very much and would happily watch it again.
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*all images are the property of StudioCanal