Friday, August 26, 2016
Review: HIGH RISE
J.G. Ballard's troubling mid-70s dystopia of a social microcosm on every corner was a slap in the face of a post-war Britain whose contrary pull of a concrete band-aid utopianism and an entitled class in siege mode. Ben Wheatley keeps it 70s without falling prey to fulsome nostalgia. While we get a couple of versions of an ABBA song the commissioned score fends off what might have been a jukebox of Sweet and T-Rex or the Glitter Band (thank god!). The temporal setting is a nod to the source not a drawcard for the boomers who remember. But it's also the time of a Margaret Thatcher on the rise and the gestation of a nightmarish push for a new lassez faire hell. That's what we get here.
So, as we start with a pleasant mid-level round of parties, drinking and sex and see the rarified snobbery of the upper floors we know it ain't gonna last. The kids barred from the pool while an upper crust nong has a private function which leads to an invasion led by malcontent in chief, Wilder. And then the power fails on the lower floors (and references to cake and some poignant checkout-chick French phrases). The barriers burst and it's orgies for all. The commune lasts until it gets boring and then the savagery takes over from below and above.
If Wheatley lingers on that last phase too long for some folk it should be remembered that this chaotic stage might well be made of sensational events but as a whole can sicken a witness through surfeit. It feels oppressive because it's meant to and if there's a film director working today who knows the power of a finely tuned excess it's Wheatley. There really was a point to the repetitive steps in Sightseers and the off-putting genre hopping of Kill List. Even in the open of A Field in England we could feel breathless and caged. Wheatley's films don't look much like each other but boy are they heavy lifting when they need to be.
A character describes Laing's apparent middle class complacency as hiding in plain sight and if anything might describe the visual heft of this film it is that phrase. The towers seen against the sky look like predators on the lookout. The beauty of the new building seems to carry the look of building rot in its texture. The fresh primary coloured walls and furniture on the lower floors assume the smell of the toddlers screaming around them and the sense of sweating human waste seems inescapable. This really is a Ben Wheatley film.
The cast never disappoints with an ensemble of the best the UK has to offer. Tom Hiddleston might seem to coast along in his placid bearing but his journey is one from hedonistic laxity to a controlled mania. Jeremy Irons dispenses with the creamy charm to remind us why David Cronenberg cast him three times (counting Dead Ringers as two) as Royal whose clueless anger reminds us of Louis XVI and whose white round collared smock recalls Nicholas II. Luke Evans shines in the range contest as Wilder, going believably from rogue to freedom fighter to perfect gentleman without a contradiction.
I forgot to mention the other sourced music. High Rise is framed by two points of irony. The first and most conventional is the bright and glorious 4th Brandenburg Concerto playing over the opening scenes of devastation. And then we end with a kid of art brut irony as the Fall's Industrial Estate clanks and whinges over the animated perfect soap bubble of the end credits. Strange thing to say about such a piece but with this kind of hospitality we really are in caring hands.